Natural History Museum Union Files Complaint Over Coronavirus App

Natural History Museum Union Files Complaint Over Coronavirus App

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.

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.

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