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The Healthcare Worker’s Furlough Survival Toolkit

3D rendering, coronavirus cells
Donato Fiorentino/123RF.com

The US Healthcare sector has been upended by the nationwide spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Existing provider shortages are amplified as hospitals reach capacity to treat the sickest patients. On the opposite end of the spectrum, more than 43,000 US healthcare professionals and support staff have been furloughed as hospitals scale down or discontinue some service lines to focus on care, staffing, and resources for COVID-19 patients. If you are among those furloughed, take a moment to pause and reflect. The last few weeks have been surreal enough, but for some, a daily work routine has been a much-needed respite. Sudden, extreme changes can be upsetting and confusing. However, the good news is that a furlough holds an expectation that an employee will return to work in her or his prior role when things begin to return to some degree of normalcy. Adapt a concrete plan with some cognitive shifts to get through the next days and weeks of furlough.

Tackle Finances First

If there’s any silver lining to COVID-19 furloughs, it’s that the federal government stands ready to help through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.  Furloughed workers stand to gain additional unemployment benefits beyond their state benefits. You are eligible for temporary federal unemployment compensation of $600 per week; this is in addition to what you will receive from your state unemployment benefit. [Example: If you live in Minnesota, your state benefit is based on 50% of your average weekly income before furlough, with a maximum weekly benefit is $640. Add the additional weekly benefit through the CARES Act ($600) for $1240 per week.] This federal unemployment benefit now extends to part-time and gig workers (for example, contractual locums nurses) as well. Check your state’s plan to comply with the CARES act and where to file for unemployment benefits. Bear in mind these benefits are taxable.

The CARES Act provides additional support through student loan repayment deferrals. Some loans have automatically gone into deferral for several months; for others you must request a deferral. Check with your lender to determine your options. If you own a home and your lender is Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, look into getting your mortgage payments deferred during your furlough. If you are a renter, look into your city, county or state specific guidance around protections from eviction; these can vary a great deal. Check in with your local water and electric companies, as most will extend some grace around making late payments and will not shut down services for nonpayment during COVID-19. Cancel any and all subscriptions that are unnecessary or redundant but keep those that provide maximum mental health benefit at low cost. Work with your credit card or other credit holders around delaying or reducing payments without penalty. One bright spot of furlough is that your healthcare benefits will remain in place.

Financial Information and Resources

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act: ncsl.org/ncsl-in-dc/publications-and-resources/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-states

Unemployment Benefits Finder:  careeronestop.org/LocalHelp/UnemploymentBenefits/find-unemployment-benefits

CARES Act Information for Student Loan Borrowers: studentloanborrowerassistance.orgr/what-the-cares-act-means-for-repayment-of-federal-student-loans/

Mortagage Assistance (Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac): fhfa.gov/Homeownersbuyer/MortgageAssistance/Pages/Coronavirus-Assistance-Information

Eviction Protection Map for Renters: antievictionmap.com/covid

Seek Peace of Mind  

One minute you’re gainfully employed and busy. The next, you’re furloughed and living under stay at home orders. It’s a lot. It would be easy to stream your favorite shows and wallow. Resist that urge, or at the very least, set a time limit to decompress. Countless other US citizens can commensurate with you. There’s a lot to process with a furlough. With families homeschooling and limited outside activities, finding balance can be tough. Designate some space as a home office for you to maintain some work-related structure and stay connected with your employer. Check in as needed to gain an understanding of the timeline and plans for you to return to work.  

With more time at home, you may over-consume news about COVID-19.  Set parameters about how and what you read online. Some front-line healthcare professionals are limiting the content they watch or read to updates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and/or Dr. Anthony Fauci, lead medical liaison of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The paywall many news providers have removed around COVID-19 is both a blessing and a curse. We’re now privy to countless pieces of COVID-19 data and information updates, but this can easily lead down a rabbit hole of over-consumption. Feelings of depression and anxiety are totally normal after being furloughed, let alone while safe distancing from the world. Don’t let those symptoms linger and worsen. Instead, seek great online counseling. Some are offering free or reduced costs options for group or individual therapy. Check out TalkSpace for one option-rich resource. National organizations like the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) shares best practices in self-care and anxiety reduction.

Resources for Self Care and Anxiety Reduction

Mental Health Resources for Covid-19 Related Concerns: talkspace.com/blog/coronavirus-talkspace-resources

National Alliance for Mental Illness Covid-19 Information and Resources: nami.org/Support-Education/NAMI-HelpLine/COVID-19-Information-and-Resources

Stay Connected

Make sure to stay connected to family and friends through apps like Zoom and similar platforms. Now is the time to unabashedly seek virtual comfort from those we can’t reach out and hug or visit. Virtual cocktail hours have kicked off with varying degrees of success. Find whatever niche helps you feel connected to the outside world while being safe. Facetime and Facebook Video Chat have recently seen usage double in some markets. These can help you connect safely and interact with the ones you love. If your fellow furloughed employees wish to meet virtually, set some ground rules – no endless loops of bad-mouthing administration or others deemed responsible for the furlough. Focus on supporting one another and highlight your personal or professional tips for staying sane and productive during the furlough. And laugh. A lot.  

Keep It All in Perspective

My father is a Vietnam War Veteran. In conversation recently about our new normal, he commented, “Can they send me back to Vietnam? No? Alright then, good.” Focus on keeping things in perspective while making plans for tackling the unknowns. Is your family healthy and safe? If someone is ill, where will you go to access the best medical care when needed? Make plans for how you will handle illness, both COVID-related or not. Are your kids in a groove with homeschooling? If not, what can you do to help? Just get moving on something – anything that can get you motivated to find some normalcy. Ramp up activities that keep you mentally sound and physically healthy. This is key to prepping for a strong immune system during your furlough and quarantine.  

Sounds trite, but it’s true. Now is not the time to sweat the small stuff.  If you find your kids do their best schoolwork after 2 PM, so be it. If you need to sleep in a bit to acclimate to this new life, do it. Cereal for dinner more often than usual? Fine. Baking helps distract me, so my family benefits from homemade brownies and cookies. We’re in crisis mode here, people, so cut yourself some slack. This also means finding the right rhythm with family activities that can create some structure while maintaining flexibility. Only you can determine what that looks like for you.

Helping Others Helps You

Lastly, help. Nothing gets you out of your own head like helping others where you can. Revisit skills that may have gotten rusty during your busy work and family life. If you can sew, make face masks for neighbors who have gone without. Contact your local long-term care facilities and nursing homes for your kids to write letters to those who are isolated and lonely. Be creative and tap into other ways you can use your skills to make a difference in your community. Check out the Earth Justice Blog and Idealist website for suggestions. Become a home-school teacher extraordinaire and don’t forget that teaching and learning happen anytime. While you’re busy helping, you will start to see a life beyond COVID-19 and your furlough. We will connect again soon in the outside world.

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About Stacey E. Halford, MSW, LMSW

Stacey E. Halford, a Licensed Master’s Social Worker, spent thirteen years as a Rural Healthcare Recruiter in a non-profit, placing physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants in rural hospital and ambulatory care settings. In July, 2019, Ms. Halford launched Day Halford Consultants, LLC. Through this work, Ms. Halford consults with healthcare non-profits and other healthcare entities for rural healthcare access strategy development.