Toronto

Hospital employee feels 'worthless' after error forces 200 workers to return pandemic pay

About 200 University Health Network physician secretaries and administrative assistants were “inadvertently” given pandemic pay ranging from $100 to $1,500. The University Health Network has asked all affected employees to pay the money back.

UHN apologizes for ‘inadvertently’ issuing pay to physician secretaries, administrative assistants

CBC Toronto is protecting the identity of a physician secretary and is calling her Erica. She says morale in her department is low after she and others have been told to return the pandemic pay they were issued. (Angelina King/CBC)

A Toronto hospital employee says she feels the sacrifices she and her colleagues have made during the pandemic aren't being valued after learning some of them have to give back the pandemic pay they were issued.

The University Health Network (UHN) says about 200 physician secretaries and administrative assistants were "inadvertently" given pandemic pay ranging from $100 to $1,500 and averaging $700. The network has asked all affected employees to pay back the money.

CBC Toronto spoke with one UHN secretary who says the issue has upset colleagues in her department, leading to low morale during an already stressful time during the pandemic.

"It makes you feel that coming in [to the hospital] and putting everyone at risk close to you, hoping you don't get it, it makes you feel worthless," she said.

CBC Toronto has agreed not to identify the employee and is using the pseudonym Erica for this story.

As a way to support front-line workers during the pandemic, the Ontario government introduced pandemic pay to eligible workers for work performed between April 24 and Aug. 13.

WATCH | CBC's Angelina King speaks to a secretary who has to pay back a pandemic pay increase:

200 University Health Network hospital physician secretaries and administration assistants have to pay back the pandemic wage increase they were given. 2:08

When pandemic pay was first introduced at UHN, which operates three large hospitals along with several rehab centres and is the largest medical research organization in North America, physician secretaries and administrative assistants weren't included. 

Erica says she and her colleagues were hopeful they'd eventually be added because they were essential workers at a hospital. 

On July 30, she received a letter from UHN saying eligible employees would be receiving two instalments of pandemic pay on Aug. 5 and 26. 

She received only the first instalment, then got a letter stating there was an error and the funds must be returned.

"We were ecstatic when we got it. Everyone was so happy," she said.

"Then to turn around and [ask for repayment], we just can't can't put into words how devastating it is. It's a lot of money to us."

She says it's led to additional stress on employees who are already under pressure while working through a pandemic and being discriminated against by family and friends because they work at a hospital with COVID-19 patients.

Erica also says while it puts financial stress on some employees, it's not just about the money. 

"It's how we're valued," she said. "The morale is low." 

UHN apologizes, says workers were never meant to get money

UHN apologized to employees for the error and the upset it has caused. In a statement from spokesperson Gillian Howard, the health network says in an effort to ease the burden, employees will have up to March 31, 2021 to repay the money.

Howard says over the past few months leadership and staff have worked with colleagues from other hospitals to try to "influence" Ministry of Health (MOH) officials to include all staff working at hospitals during COVID-19 to receive pandemic pay.

"Regrettably, a large number of employees, including this group, have not been included. We have been directed by MOH to abide by this decision," she said.

Erica says it's been stressful for her and her colleagues after not receiving pandemic pay, then getting paid one instalment, and then being told they must pay it back. (Angelina King/CBC)

Howard says the approximately 200 physician secretaries and administrative assistants were never supposed to receive the money because they are not eligible under provincial guidelines.

CBC Toronto obtained a letter UHN sent to affected employees that says the exclusion relates to physician secretaries and administrative assistants whose salary is paid by doctors.

"We have confirmed through the Ministry of Health (MOH) that physician secretaries paid by physicians are not eligible to receive publicly funded money whether they were actively at work or in patient facing roles," the letter reads.

Erica says she's puzzled because she's paid by UHN, not a doctor, but is still being asked to give back her pandemic pay.

"It's very confusing, but this is a problem they started and it's for them to figure it out, not to put that extra stress onto us," she said.

Employees want to keep pandemic pay 

Questions to the health ministry were directed to the Treasury Board Secretariat. A spokesperson for the secretariat referred to a statement Premier Doug Ford previously made. Ford said the government wishes it could provide pandemic pay to all frontline workers.

"Unfortunately, there is a limit to the amount of funding provided by the federal government through our shared agreement and we are not able to expand the pandemic pay program beyond the over 375,000 employees already deemed eligible," Sebastian Skamsi wrote in a statement.

On Sept 1, a letter was sent to the employees outlining three ways they could back the money: pay the net amount by cheque or money order, have the full gross amount deducted from one paycheque or have the money come off their pay in instalments until March.

They were told to make their choice by Sept. 9.

Erica says she and others in her department chose not to sign and send back the form. They want to keep the money and want the second instalment of pandemic pay.

"It was a problem they created and they left it up to us to fix it," she said.

"We were told we had to come in to work during this pandemic. We provide essential services and we felt good about getting that money. That meant a lot to us."

About the Author

Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto where she covers a wide range of stories. She has a particular interest in crime, legal and justice issues and human interest stories. She previously reported on national and international news. Angelina got her start in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at angelina.king@cbc.ca or @angelinaaking

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