New York City’s largest municipal union on Tuesday filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the American Museum of Natural History over the institution’s plan to require employees to record possible coronavirus symptoms on an app. The head of the union called it overly intrusive.
Under the museum’s plan, each day before work, the app would have asked employees to report if they had a fever or symptoms like a cough or congestion. The app would have then told employees whether they were cleared to work or, if not, where they might get tested for the virus. The results would then be reported to their employer.
But according to the union, District Council 37, many of its members saw the app, called ProtectWell, as an invasion of their privacy and objected to the museum choosing a program whose data was not protected by Hipaa, the federal law on patient privacy.
Henry Garrido, the union’s executive director, said there were other tools that the museum could adopt that would not be so invasive. He said he was not able to provide a copy of the complaint, which it filed to the National Labor Relations Board, because it is considered confidential under lawyer-client privilege.
“It’s not like they’re reinventing the wheel here; there are other city agencies opening right now,” Mr. Garrido said. “They have other options.”
As museums in New York City prepare to open after more than five months of pandemic shutdown, screening apps are among the tools that administrators are using to prevent their institutions from becoming hotbeds for the coronavirus. Months ago, employers in a variety of fields rushed to adopt these worker-screening tools, but experts warned that they are being introduced with minimal government oversight — and with few details on how companies are using and safeguarding the health data, or how long they plan to keep it.
For businesses reopening in New York, the state mandates that they implement health screenings of staffers each day before they start work. Some employers are opting for online surveys or paper checklists rather than smartphone applications.
The standoff between the museum and the union could threaten to derail the museum’s plans to open early next month. If the museum doesn’t have a health screening process in place, it cannot bring back its employees.
A spokeswoman for the museum did not immediately provide comment.
The app, developed by UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft in response to the pandemic, is offered to employers for free, which has made some union employees worry that their health data could be monetized. The app debuted in May, as many states were beginning to allow certain businesses to reopen.
In order to make sure every employee fills out the survey before work, the museum told the union that if staff members failed to do so, they would not be allowed in the museum and would be denied wages for the day.
A unionized museum employee, who did not want his name to be published out of fear he might lose his job, said that for many employees, that rule came off as a threat.
In particular, the union local that represents museum guards, Local 1306, is unanimous in its opposition to mandating that employees download and use the app on their smartphones — if they have these devices.
When the museum introduced the policy to the union earlier this month, the negotiations quickly became adversarial. The union demanded more information on what happens to employees who don’t have smartphones. A museum official said he needed to know how many employees that included before fleshing out an alternative for them.
In a letter dated Aug. 14, a union representative, Ben Totushek, wrote to the museum’s associate director of labor and employee relations, Nilesh Patel. The letter was provided to The New York Times by an employee who did not wish to be named out of fear of retaliation. It outlined some of the union employees’ concerns, including that the app would diminish their data privacy and the museum gave no clear alternatives to downloading it on their personal devices. They also pointed out that public health experts had doubts “over whether such screenings may actually do more harm than good by creating a false sense of security.”
In a response letter, dated Aug. 17, Mr. Patel defended the app, saying it was easy to use and would allow employees to complete their daily screenings in the privacy of their own homes. Opting to move the screening process to paper was “untenable” because it would increase the potential for inaccuracies, he wrote, and the app would make it easier for the museum to review the data daily.
This particular app “provides the best possibility for us to protect the health and safety of our staff and our visitors and satisfy the state’s mandate,” Mr. Patel wrote.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 24, 2020
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
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- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
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- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
In a follow-up letter, dated Aug. 18, Mr. Totushek took issue with Mr. Patel’s suggestion that the ProtectWell app wasn’t any more invasive than other apps employees download onto their smartphones, saying that the information being collected is sensitive.
“The applications you are referring to are downloaded of people’s own free will,” Mr. Totushek wrote. “This is being mandated.”
A spokesman for ProtectWell said that the app complies with applicable state and federal privacy laws and that coronavirus test results are shared with employers with permission from the user. The company said the app isn’t subject to Hipaa.
In a statement, the chief executive of ProtectWell, Adam Hjerpe, said the company is “honored” to be supporting the museum “as they do everything they can to ensure the health and safety of their staff and visitors.”
Like many other cultural institutions, the pandemic has plunged the natural history museum into financial difficulty. In May, it announced that it would cut its full-time staff by about 200 people, including dozens of layoffs, and it projected a budget deficit of as much as $120 million for the remainder of that fiscal year, which ended in June.
Before the pandemic layoffs, about 300 of the museum’s roughly 2,000 employees were members of DC37; some other employees are members of separate unions.
The union has pointed to other screening options that would fulfill the state’s mandate without intruding on employees’ privacy.
It has suggested another app that is Hipaa compliant, called HealthChampion. The union also pointed to the fact that New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is using a web-based survey to screen employees for symptoms — not an app downloaded onto personal devices. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is using an online screening survey, too, but employees who forget or do not wish to use it are permitted to fill out a paper copy, a spokesman said.