The Current

Front-line workers say they shouldn't be forgotten as pandemic continues

Many people who aren't health-care workers or physicians have remained on the front lines for over nine months. The Current speaks to three of them, who say the challenges at their jobs have persisted, but in many ways the public's attention and support has gradually drifted away.

The impromptu balcony cheers and concerts for front-line workers have quieted, but workers' jobs continue

Left to right: JR LeBlanc, Carmen Louie and Cecilia Sparrow are working the front lines during the pandemic, whether it be a hospital ICU, long-term care home or grocery store. (Submitted by JR LeBlanc, Carmen Louie and Ceclia Sparrow)

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JR LeBlanc remembers when the streets would be filled with cheers encouraging him and other front-line workers, whether they were treating patients or otherwise working hard to ensure the hospital ICU could run smoothly, to best tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's totally changed.... Now it's kind of like a different world, kind of like we're on our own," LeBlanc told The Current's guest host Catherine Cullen.

LeBlanc does one of the most important jobs at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ont. — he cleans it. As a hospital custodian, he scrubs surfaces, and keeps patients company when visitors aren't allowed inside.

After doing the work for over nine months, he says he has gotten used to the job. But repetition hasn't made the job stress-free.

When the pandemic started, LeBlanc got moved to clean 'COVID rooms' in the ICU at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ont. He's making sure they stay meticulously clean, to contain outbreaks and keep the virus from spreading to others. (Submitted by JR LeBlanc)

"I just think that people don't realize that we're in the middle of this at all times. And with this second wave, I think we're more prepared, but it still doesn't make it any easier," he said.

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As 2020 closes, and Canadians gradually get vaccinated through the next year, LeBlanc hopes that people won't soon forget the heroes that were once applauded every day working in all parts of the health-care system.

"I'm going to remember all the heroes that I saw on a daily basis. You know, the tech people, the doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, the transporters and even the PSWs [personal support workers]," he said.

"I'll never forget what they did, and how they [helped] us get through this. They're amazing."

Help workers with pandemic pay bump: PSW

Having worked both as a grocery store clerk in Toronto and a PSW for private clients, Cecilia Sparrow hopes people will remember the importance of these front-line workers long after the pandemic has ended.

She says many front-line workers have been "taken for granted" as the pandemic dragged on, particularly because many of them had their pandemic pay bonuses rolled back as the number of new cases lulled in the summer.

Some employers have reinstated the bonuses, but others have not.

"They stopped it, yet COVID was still going on," she said. "You say we're important, so what are you doing to do about it?"

Sparrow now works at a long-term care home — partly, she says, for added job security and benefits to help support herself, her partner and kids, despite the inherent risk it currently carries.

"I was very, very nervous when I first started, and I still am. I don't want to bring, obviously, COVID to my home. That's something I'm always worried about," she said.

Sparrow is a Toronto-based personal support worker currently working in a long-term care home. (Submitted by Cecilia Sparrow)

Long-term care home residents remain at the centre of many COVID-19 outbreaks across Canada, putting them at the top of the priority list for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

The vaccine was made available to residents and staff at Sparrow's long-term care home. She got the first shot, and is scheduled for her second one next week.

Compassion comes first

Carmen Louie has seen first-hand how the ongoing pandemic guidelines and lockdowns have frayed people's nerves — some more than others.

The cashier and manager at Donald's Market grocery store in Vancouver says her store has been offering free masks for any customers who don't have one handy. Most customers are grateful, she says, but she's become embroiled in heated arguments with some who are resistant to the idea.

Louie is manager and cashier at Donald's Market grocery store in Vancouver. (Submitted by Carmen Louie)

"One guy even told me that, you know, handing [him] a mask is like I'm a criminal," she said.

"I explained to him that, you know this is for the safety of the staff, the customers, and the safety of our community."

Donald's Market introduced its mandatory mask rule before it applied to all indoor public spaces in B.C. in November. The law was welcomed by many business owners, but reports have followed of some stores having to hire private security guards to deal with a growing number of people refusing to do so and getting confrontational or aggressive.

Louie, a local celebrity who says she can remember the names of more than 10,000 customers, steadfastly relies on kindness to diffuse the confrontations.

"The only thing that you can do now is you have to be positive, you have to be gentle, you have to be compassionate," she said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.

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