Penobscot Community Health Care runs the school-based health clinic at the Brewer Community School as pictured in this 2018 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre

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Penobscot Community Health Care, which has primary care, medical specialty and walk-in centers at locations across Waldo, Penobscot and Somerset counties, has furloughed 75 of its approximately 800 employees as of Thursday, according to Lori Dwyer, the president and CEO.

PCHC has let nearly 10 percent of its people go on a temporary basis from administrative positions and its more specialized services, such as chiropractic care, physical therapy, podiatry, audiology and dental care, as it postpones appointments to limit patient and staff exposure to COVID-19, Dwyer said.

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The furloughs primarily affect workers in PCHC’s Bangor and Brewer locations. For instance, its dental center in Bangor is only open for emergency procedures, to prevent people from turning to local hospital emergency departments handling COVID-19 patients.

PCHC is still offering walk-in care at its Old Town, Brewer, Bangor and Belfast locations, and is largely providing primary care through video conferencing or over the phone, Dwyer said.

“It’s heartbreaking to have this kind of level of disruption,” Dwyer said. “That said, we have an incredibly resilient workforce. Our staff have just been incredibly understanding and really kind to one another, and thoughtful about what needs to be done.”

Furloughed workers will still receive some level of financial support.

Initially, PCHC asked its furloughed workers to use their earned time — used for vacation and sick days — to get paid while on leave. This week, however, after multiple people raised concerns about eventually returning to work with no paid time off, Dwyer said PCHC changed its approach. It’s now up to furloughed workers whether to use their earned time or collect unemployment benefits.

PCHC is maintaining health benefits for furloughed employees. Employees can use earned time to cover the health insurance premiums to which they would normally contribute, Dwyer said. If they defer those premium payments, they will be asked to pay them back over time when they return to work.

Some people may be called back to work, perhaps for a new role, as the situation changes, Dwyer said. For instance, there is more to do now to inventory personal protective equipment, and, as more people get COVID-19, walk-in care will likely get busier.

She views PCHC’s role as helping to relieve the burden on hospitals and to continue as much as possible with preventive care, “so when we get to the other side of this pandemic we don’t have pent-up demand,” she said.

PCHC’s pharmacies are open. Patients with substance use disorders are still getting their medication-assisted treatment, she said. Work continues at its shelter, the Hope House Health and Living Center. And PCHC has helped set up a quarantine shelter at Columbia Street Baptist Church in case people who are homeless contract COVID-19.

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.