As Ontario healthcare workers finally begin receiving their long-awaited bonus pay for work during the COVID-19 pandemic, providers say the province needs to be educated about what the front lines actually look like.
Trillium Health Partners received clearance to pay out the funds for frontline workers, announced in April, as of July 8. However, that has re-ignited feelings of frustration for those who have been excluded.
Elza Kertsman, a physiotherapist at Trillium Health Partners, says that while they have known for a while that they were being excluded from the pandemic pay, that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow now that the money is finally being disbursed.
“We knew it’s going to happen but obviously my colleagues are very upset and the morale is very low, especially amongst those who work in a very close contact with patients, but also among laboratory technologists as they work 24/7 to perform the tests.”
The bonus – a $4 hourly raise over the following four months and a monthly bonus of $250 for those working more than 100 hours in a month – has been offered to a variety of personnel including staff at long-term care homes and emergency shelters and well as some community care providers and some staff in hospitals. Public health nurses and paramedics were also included in a recent expansion.
The province has not explained what criteria it used to choose who would qualify for a top-up and who would not. However, according to a government source, the pandemic pay allocation amounts were determined based on the headcounts and hours worked by eligible employees as reported to each ministry.
Erin Powley, a crisis worker at Credit Valley Hospital as well as a social worker, says she initially thought she was on the list to receive pandemic pay.
“When we looked at the list and it said mental health workers, it was like ‘Oh yes we are frontline, mental health workers. We are in the emergency department where patients with COVID symptoms are coming, we are in the full PPE, and we are working with mental health patients so how could we not be included in the category.’ Finding out that we were not included was very invalidating. It felt like the people who were making these decisions did not understand our jobs and our roles.”
Critics say the Ontario government’s pandemic pay list leaves out a multitude of interdisciplinary hospital workers with critical roles in dealing with the virus. For example, when a patient with COVID-19 is assessed in the emergency department at an academic hospital, it is often a resident doctor doing post-graduate training that provides high-touch care. Imaging technicians don full protective gear to take an X-ray or move patients through a CT scanner. Medical laboratory technicians have been working around the clock to reorganize and scale operations to process and report coronavirus test results rapidly. As patients recover from critical illness, it is the allied health professionals that work on COVID units like physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists who work closely with patients.
Danielle Pierce, a physiotherapist in the GTA, says the frontline of healthcare is more than staff doctors and nurses.
She discussed being excluded from pandemic pay in a Facebook post back in May, receiving a gratifying response from her healthcare colleagues.
“I was incredibly humbled by the response to my post and thankful that it resonated with so many people, in so many professions, helping to put feelings into words,” she says. “This has nothing to do with our employers or our colleagues who did receive pandemic pay, and they don’t deserve any of our negative feelings.”
Sebastian Skalski, Press Secretary for Ontario’s Office of the President of the Treasury Board, says the government will not be expanding the list of eligible employees beyond the 375,000 already deemed suitable.
“We wish we could provide pandemic pay to every single frontline worker who has contributed to the fight against COVID-19. Unfortunately, there is a limit to the amount of funding provided by the federal government through our shared agreement,” he says.
Ashley Tinkham, a speech-language pathologist at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga who was left off the pandemic pay list, says the government needs to reconsider what it considers the frontline.
“I think a lot of people, especially the personal support workers, really deserve it. Going forward, it is a really tough job to care for people at that level, and they really deserve to get a bit more.”