Northern Light Health's main office in Brewer Credit: Courtesy of Northern Light Health

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While some Maine health systems have furloughed workers or cut pay as the coronavirus pandemic forces them to postpone nonessential services — and deprives them of the resulting revenue — the biggest system in Greater Bangor has announced that it will not cut pay or force any of its 12,000 employees to stop working.

Instead, Northern Light Health is giving three options to any workers whose regular duties are drying up because of the pandemic and whose skills aren’t needed somewhere else: they can do other types of work, use their accrued paid time off or voluntarily agree to go on an unpaid furlough.

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Northern Light has not set a target for how much it hopes to save through voluntary furloughs. The system has also said it prefers that many of them continue working.

The Brewer-based health care system is one of the largest employers in Maine, with more than 12,000 workers across its 10 hospitals and numerous other practices that stretch from southern Maine to Presque Isle. About 4,500 of them work at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and at least 1,000 more work at Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland.

Those options, which Northern Light shared with its employees in a company-wide memo on Tuesday night, are in contrast with some other health care organizations that have had to scale back staffing costs because of the pandemic.

“The focus of our communication has been to reassure employees that while other employers have had involuntary layoffs or furloughs and pay cuts, we don’t have plans to do any of those things, so that staff know they’re needed and will be needed in the future in their regular jobs,” Chief Human Resources Officer and Senior Vice President Paul Bolin said in an interview.

Penobscot Community Health Care, which operates clinics across Penobscot, Waldo and Somerset counties, had furloughed 75 of its approximately 800 employees as of last Thursday. Central Maine Healthcare, which runs hospitals in Lewiston, Rumford and Bridgton, has furloughed about 330 of its approximately 3,200 workers and cut the pay of its top executives. In Aroostook County, Houlton Regional Hospital and Cary Medical Center in Caribou have both cut employee pay.

A spokesperson for another of Greater Bangor’s biggest medical providers, St. Joseph Healthcare, didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday on whether it is making any similar changes.

Because Northern Light’s locations have been postponing elective services to ensure they have the capacity to handle a possible surge of coronavirus patients, some medical assistants and administrative workers at its outpatient practices have found themselves with little to do, according to Bolin.

The pandemic has also created new roles that those employees can fill, such as collecting nasal swabs from patients who are being tested for the coronavirus or filling dispensers with hand sanitizer, said Bolin. Alternatively, those workers can either take time off using their paid leave or go on the voluntary furlough.

Bolin said he does not yet know how many of the system’s employees fall into the nonessential status that would qualify them for those options. He said the voluntary furloughs are expected to last between one and four weeks, but could be extended with the approval of workers and their supervisors.

While the workers would not earn a wage during the furlough, they would be eligible to seek unemployment benefits under the new stimulus package approved by Congress, according to the memo that Northern Light sent its workers. They also would retain their health insurance.

“We don’t expect there to be large numbers in terms of voluntary furloughs,” Bolin said. “There’s lots of work to be done.”

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