London

Health care workers left without pandemic pay say they're the forgotten front line

Front-line health workers, as well as the CEO of the region's largest hospital, decried the list of people who qualify for "pandemic pay," saying the list is far from comprehensive and leaves off many who work directly with patients.

The CEO of the London Health Sciences Centre says province's list is "disappointing"

From left to right: Social worker Asha Rawal, dietician Jill Pikul, and physiotherapists Lisa Moorhouse, Ali Sheeler, Johanna Fraser and dietitian Jennifer-Anne Meneray say their daily work with COVID-19 patients should qualify them for pandemic pay. (Supplied by Ali Sheeler)

Front-line health workers, as well as the CEO of southwestern Ontario's largest hospital, are speaking out against the province's list of people who qualify for "pandemic pay" They say the list leaves off many that work directly with COVID-19 patients. 

Those workers who qualify get $4 per hour on top of existing hourly wages. Some also qualify for an additional bump if they've worked a designated amount during a particular four-week period. On Wednesday, the province revealed the final information about who qualifies and how they will get paid. 

In a rare rebuke of provincial policy, Neil Johnson, the interim president and CEO of the London Health Sciences Centre, said he was "disappointed in the lack of inclusively of the list," both in the hospital and in other areas of the health care system. 

"Unfortunately, it appears the list of eligible health-care workers is far from comprehensive and does not reflect the reality of the work that you do to support patient care," Johnson wrote in a note to staff Wednesday afternoon. 

The pandemic pay is aimed at "helping frontline staff who are experiencing severe challenges and are at heightened risk during the COVID-19 outbreak," the province says on its website. 

An earlier version of the list excluded paramedics and respiratory therapists, but those have been added. 

The list includes people who work in the hospital laundry, but not physiotherapists, dietitians, medical radiation technologists, and social workers who work directly at the bedsides of COVID-19 patients. 

'Lack of insight'

Those who work on the front-lines and aren't eligible for the pandemic pay say they hope sharing the stories of what they deal with every day will nudge the province to re-work the list, as it did when there was public outcry when paramedics and respiratory therapists were left off. 

"In the ICU setting, we use exercise to help COVID patients strengthen their respiratory muscles and strengthen the muscles in their body to be able to wean off these ventilators and get back to independent living," said Ali Holmes, a physiotherapist at University Hospital. 

"Physiotherapy is extremely important in helping to get these people off the ventilator and back on their feet. I think there's a lack of insight into what we do, especially in the acute care setting in the intensive care unit." 

Physiotherapist Johanna Fraser preforms chest physiotherapy on a patient in full protective gear. (Supplied by Ali Sheeler)

"The province has been really tooting their own horn about emotional health and wellness and the front-line workers, and we are really doing a lot of work not only supporting families, but supporting them in a different way," said Asha Rawal, a social worker with 20 years experience. 

"We are face to face with those patients whose loved ones are saying goodbye, and in so many different ways. Unfortunately, in the ICU, I deal with a lot of families that go through grief and loss. The provincial government determined we were essential workers when COVID hit, and now when there's some opportunity to give us a little bit of remuneration for the support we've provided, we've been excluded." 

Direct contact with secretions

Dieticians, too, work closely with COVID-19 patients, said Jill Pikul, who has worked in the field for more than 35 years. She has to make sure recovering patients get enough nutrition to be able to recover properly. 

"We work very closely with others to make sure they're getting the nutrition they need to get those muscles working again," she said. 

Physiotherapists are often working with patients who are on ventilators, running the risk that the machine becomes dislodged. 

"When we're mobilizing these patients, we do run the risk of the ventilator coming undone and we're at risk of getting sprayed with their secretions, which carry the coronavirus," said Johanna Fraser, who has worked as a physiotherapist for 30 years. 

"We're moving, touching, we're getting nice and close to these patients and we're working directly with their lung secretions. And then we leave the organization and go home to our families and we worry about carrying these microorganisms on our clothes and in our hair.

"We don't let our kids touch us or hug us until we scrub down in the shower and then we go to bed, get up in the morning, and we do it all over again."

Some of the workers who don't qualify for 'pandemic pay'

  • Occupational therapists
  • Physiotherapists
  • Therapy assistants
  • Speech language pathologists 
  • Dietitians
  • Social workers
  • Pharmacists
  • Medical radiation technologists
  • Sonographers
  • Pharmacy technicians
  • Physicians assistants 
  • Medical laboratory technologists

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.

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