Sarah Zanchettin spends her days educating her colleagues at Toronto General Hospital about COVID-19: how to respond to outbreaks, updates on new patients and any new policy changes made in the previous 24 hours.
The infection-control practitioner worked 12-hour days without weekends in the early months of the pandemic, also lending her expertise to five long-term care and retirement homes. As coronavirus outbreaks raged in Ontario’s nursing homes, she helped frightened staff learn how to respond to the virus, and trained them to wear personal protective equipment.
The Ontario government recognized such front-line workers with its temporary “pandemic pay” increase of $4 an hour.
But Ms. Zanchettin said she recently learned she is not eligible.
That is because Ms. Zanchettin – whose background is microbiology – is not a nurse. The government specifies that only “infection prevention and control nurses” qualify, although the government says every employee in long-term care is eligible and has received the pay.
“What upsets me, or what disheartens me about the whole thing, is that I’m not recognized. Whereas my colleague who shares an office with me is, because she happens to be a nurse,” Ms. Zanchettin said. “That’s what kind of puts salt in the pandemic wound.”
Ontario’s temporary pandemic pay program, which took effect on April 24, is set to end on Thursday. According to Ontario’s first-quarter financial report, the federal government spent $1.129-billion on the province’s program, with Queen’s Park contributing $424-million for a total of $1.55-billion. The list of eligible employees in Ontario included personal support workers, cleaners and food handlers, nurses and emergency shelter staff, among others. Those who worked more than 100 hours a month were also eligible for a monthly lump-sum payment of $250.
But the province faced criticism for leaving people out. A group of southwestern hospital chief executive officers wrote an open letter to the government, citing a lack of clarity and uncertainty about the pay that was affecting “the morale of our employees.” Some workers, including paramedics and respiratory therapists, were added, but hospital laboratory staff who ramped up testing, physiotherapists and others who encountered COVID-19 patients in hospitals were not.
The money has also been slow to flow; Premier Doug Ford recently admonished hospitals for withholding the increase, while union leaders and hospital CEOs say calculating the payments for thousands of employees is complicated.
Sebastian Skamski, a spokesman for Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, said every hospital in Ontario has received pandemic pay funds since June. He said the Ministry of Health encourages hospitals to release the money “as soon as possible,” and most employees are expected to receive payments throughout August.
“As Premier Ford has said, we wish we could provide pandemic pay to every single front-line worker who has contributed to the fight against COVID-19,” Mr. Skamski said. “... We are not able to expand the pandemic pay program beyond the over 375,000 employees already deemed eligible.”
Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network, who supervises Ms. Zanchettin’s team, said only about half of the infection-control professionals in Ontario are nurses. The others have backgrounds from laboratory medicine to research to public health. The infection-control team supports all of the hospital nurses and physicians, she said.
She said those who have been left out should be included.
“These are pretty fundamental roles during a pandemic,” Dr. Hota said. “If they feel undervalued, I worry a lot about people leaving. … And we need more people to be doing this kind of work.”
Michelle Beaudry, a physiotherapist with 29 years of experience who works in a Northern Ontario hospital, said she was surprised her profession wasn’t on the list. The sense among her colleagues was that the government didn’t know how hospitals worked – that it wasn’t just doctors and nurses who kept the place going. “It was just an overall sense of disappointment,” she said.
She said the government should have taken an all-or-nothing approach – or focused on long-term care.
“I think it was mishandled right from the start,” she said. “The pandemic pay should have [gone] to the long-term care sector that was struggling desperately. ... That’s the group that needed an incentive to come to work.”
Ms. Zanchettin says her job is her passion, and she would never stop doing it. But she wonders what would happen if the program is reinstated and she is excluded.
“If there is a second wave, it’ll continue to be upsetting to me,” she said. “It’s demoralizing. But would it stop me from doing my job, to the level that I’m doing it today? No.”
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