The coronavirus contact tracing corps New York City will rely on to safely reopen will be heavily staffed by privately employed temps earning as little as $20 an hour — despite what the city public hospital system CEO described as “sensitive” work.

NYC Health + Hospitals is scrambling to hire 1,700 workers by Monday to track down and test anyone who’s come in contact with people confirmed to have COVID-19, a key strategy for reopening the city safely. 

While the majority of the squad will consist of salaried NYC Health + Hospitals employees, at least 700 in the first wave are classified as “monitors,” brought on by the health care firm UnitedHealth Group and earning $20 to $22 hourly, city officials confirmed.

The city plans to boost the total contract tracing headcount to 2,500 in coming weeks. Hiring 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents is one of two metrics New York City has left to reach to meet the state’s checklist of seven criteria for reopening.

Some who had hoped to be hired for one of the government positions were disappointed to discover they were being recruited for a more modest gig.

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks about the city’s coronavirus plans, with Health + Hospitals CEO Mitch Katz. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Through the mayor’s press conferences and just like, I’ve seen news articles that talk about how it was going to be a $57,000-per-year job. It was supposed to come with health benefits,” said one person who received a job offer from UnitedHealth Group’s recruiting firm, Adecco. 

“I was informed that the job is actually a temp job that pays $22 per hour. If you are bilingual and speak Spanish it is $23 per hour.”

The applicant said the whole onboarding process has been frenetic, with so little information provided other than the vague title of “contract tracer” and a start date of June 1, that it’s not clear to prospective hires whether the job supports the city’s or state’s efforts.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Health said the agency is not working with UnitedHealth Group on contact tracing. 

An email sent to new hires indicates that some recently brought on by Adecco are being asked to cram in multiple all-day training sessions that could stretch past Monday, and to complete an online course offered by Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. 

“They were calling people as they were receiving resumes and applications. It was very crazy. I’ve never been made an offer five to 10 minutes after applying for something before,” said the recent hire. “On the phone the guy said something to the effect of, ‘Yeah, the city wants health industry experience but it’s just a call center job.’”

‘Sensitive’ Work

The work that both the city hospitals staff and temp monitors are taking on will require respect for personal privacy, deft people skills and powers of persuasion. 

The hospital employees, called case investigators or community investigators, will reach out to New York City residents who have tested positive for COVID-19, help connect them to any services they need to self-isolate — and track down everyone who’s been in close proximity to them, according to Ted Long, executive director of the city’s Test & Trace Corps.

The hourly-paid monitors — employed by Optum, which shares a parent company with UnitedHealth Group, following background and drug tests — will help bring in all the contacts for testing, and check on people in quarantine to make sure they’re complying and safe. 

Monitors will work remotely, while community investigators will be expected to show up at residences if targeted individuals can’t be reached by other means.

Health + Hospitals CEO Dr. Mitch Katz has stressed the importance of having government employees handle outreach and information of a delicate nature. De Blasio early this month moved oversight of the program out of the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — which had performed disease contact tracing for decades — and into NYC Health + Hospitals.

Health + Hospitals President Mitchell Katz attends a City Hall press conference on the coronavirus, March 12, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The prior plan would have had them be hired by a nongovernmental entity,” Katz told City Council members during a May 15 hearing that examined the sudden shift in management. “I make no apologies for being a public sector person and believing in the public sector and believing that critical government roles should be done by government employees.” 

Earlier this week, Katz told reporters that with the public hospitals running the show, the new hires “are government employees, which I certainly believe is important for this kind of sensitive work — and work that’s always been done by government employees.”

Health Agency Upheaval

De Blasio’s removal of contact tracing from the city’s health department, first reported by POLITICO New York, marked a controversial move that exposed long-simmering tensions between the mayor and his health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot.

Multiple sources said they clashed in early March when health department experts pushed for a more aggressive response to the coronavirus outbreak — including shuttering schools — at a time when the mayor was still resistant to major disruptions of daily life.

When de Blasio first announced the expansion of the contact tracing program on April 27, the operation was still housed in the health department. The hiring was being managed then by the agency’s non-profit arm, the Fund for Public Health.

Just 11 days later, de Blasio announced that the initiative — which will eventually grow to employ many as 10,000 — would be run out of the public hospitals system, a move he justified in operational terms. 

“Everything at Health and Hospitals has been based on speed, and intensity, and precision, and they’ve done an amazing job,” de Blasio said at his May 8 news conference. “So, that is why it makes sense as we build this next effort to use that great leadership and that great organizational capacity of a huge, huge organization [that] would reach into every part of the city, and have them lead the way on our new tool that we’re bringing to bear in this fight.”

Readying to Reopen

Health and Hospitals officials emphasized that their oversight of the program allows for more rapid hiring than could have been done out of a city agency. They said it made sense to house the work there since they were already running other components of the city’s reopening strategy.

Health and Hospitals is finalizing the role of UnitedHealth Group, and couldn’t immediately provide a cost for the contract.

City officials have emphasized that contact tracing only works in tandem with a robust testing and isolation program — both of which are being managed out of NYC Health + Hospitals.

Around 27,000 coronavirus tests are currently conducted in the city each day, with a goal of 50,000 daily by Aug. 1, de Blasio said this week.

City Hall has also earmarked 1,200 free hotel rooms for virus-infected people who can’t safely isolate at home because of large families or who share bathrooms, and will ramp that number up to about 3,000 by late summer, officials said.

In addition to hiring a minimum number of contact tracers, to qualify to begin reopening under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s framework, New York City will need to have at least 30% of its hospital and intensive-care unit beds available. Currently, 26% of general beds and 29% of ICU beds are open.