Pandemic pay: Which health-care workers are left out?

The province is providing employers temporary pandemic pay for frontline workers, distributing lump-sump payments equivalent to about $4 per hour for straight time worked over a 16-week period, dating back to March 15. Exactly who will get paid, however, is at issue.

B.C.’s privately funded health-care workers are excluded from the provincial government’s pandemic pay bump — and some operating long-term care homes grappling with increased costs linked to COVID-19 say it is unfair to employees.

“I think if we’re going to be paying a pandemic pay [bonus] to health-care workers, it should be paid across the board,” said Bob Attfield, general manager of The Hamlets at Westsyde.

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“Health-care workers are all exposed to it [COVID-19]. They’ve all put in the same efforts to protect our seniors. They’re working with people that are vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, so I think they should all be treated equally.”

The Hamlets at Westsyde is partially subsidized by the province, with residents funded by Interior Health.

The province is providing employers temporary pandemic pay for frontline workers, distributing lump-sump payments equivalent to about $4 per hour for straight time worked over a 16-week period, dating back to March 15. Funds have either been distributed or are expected to be distributed soon.

Eligibility is issue being debated

Exactly who will get paid, however, is at issue. The province stated online that the program is applicable to health-care, social services and corrections workers.

Sheila Minten, a Kamloops resident who is also vice-president of Sidney All Care Residence on Vancouver Island, said government information about the program did not make clear whether her privately funded care home would be included. She reached out to the province and a letter in response was shared with KTW, stating: “Privately funded clinics and businesses are not eligible for the program.”

Long-term care facilities in British Columbia — which have been especially vulnerable across the country during the pandemic, being at the centre of numerous outbreaks leading to most COVID-19-related deaths in Canada and requiring military intervention in Ontario — are a mix of public, public-private and fully private.

Sidney All Care Residence is privately owned and privately funded and will not receive pandemic pay for its staff. No reason was provided to Minten by the province, she said, leaving her concerned about a competitive disadvantage her facility faces with publicly funded care homes — all of which exist to care for seniors.

Dix calls on private employers to raise wages

On Tuesday, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said private employers would be expected to boost employee pay. However, Minten said that is not feasible.

“We financially can’t afford to just pay it [pandemic pay resulting in a temporary $4 hour increase] out to our staff,” she said. “Because of so many added costs with COVID, we’re not able. I know some of our staff are feeling that we have to pay it. We don’t actually have the financial ability to pay it. The problem is, you look at staff, they’re going to look at this and say, ‘There’s more incentive to go publicly funded. I’m going to go work at a publicly funded care home.’”

Minten said added costs include increased staffing and personal protective equipment. Meanwhile, as expenses have risen during the pandemic, revenues have declined with fewer residents, resulting from people pulling family members out of care homes due to fear of contracting the novel coronavirus.

Staffing concerns have been amplified due to a provincial order prohibiting care home staff from working at more than one facility. That order was put in place to curb spread of the virus and has put workers in the position of having to choose where to work, leading to shortage of staff at some homes, Minten said.

If staff wish to work in the public sector, there are jobs, she said, and pandemic pay is an added incentive. Thus far, Minten said, one staff member in Sidney has left for the public sector.

“With this benefit, it’s only 16 weeks [of pay],” Minten said, adding that with the pandemic likely to carry on into next year, staff may assume more public-sector incentives are on the horizon.

A call to broaden pandemic pay parameters

BC Care Providers Association CEO Mike Klassen has penned a letter to the province, calling for the program, which is funded with federal dollars, to be broadened. He estimated the federal government gave about a half-billion dollars to British Columbia to distribute. He said the decision to exclude private organizations will have a “destabilizing effect” on workplaces already challenged by staffing shortages, noting it could impact the cost of services for seniors. Klassen told KTW two-thirds of long-term care in B.C. is privately funded and he estimated 32,000 workers will be excluded from pandemic pay.

“Even though you’re doing the exact same work, you’re under the same licensing agreements and you were affected by the same provincial health orders… you do not get the extra funding for your wages for this pandemic pay,” Klassen said. “That was a choice that was made.”

Klassen called the $4-per-hour equivalent increase “arbitrary.” He estimated 57,000 people will receive the pay, arguing the government could have provided a slightly lower pay to more people. He called for transparency in the process and noted that if private homes began to shut down across the province, the service would have to be fully subsidized by government. Klassen said he believes the decision was made too quickly, noting the BC Care Providers Association was not consulted.

“We were left out,” Klassen said.

Dix, however, defended the decision, noting pandemic pay is going to many privately owned care homes with public services.

“In British Columbia, I think our pandemic pay has been the widest of any jurisdiction in the country, or at least as wide as any jurisdiction and wider than most jurisdictions,” Dix said. “More people are eligible, including people who work in for-profit or non-profit long-term care homes, for example, who are essentially serving the public through public beds. We had a wide thing. I know some people would like it wider and there are several proposals to widen it out. This is a federal-provincial measure and, ultimately you have to make decisions about the limits of the size of the programs. Our decision was to limit it for that period, for that 16-week period, where that pandemic pay was available, the $4 an hour was available, to people who are contractors to government or direct government employees in those cases.”

Who gets the wage boost?

Publicly subsidized private homes face questions over how to distribute funds.

Minten said some private-public facilities are planning to share pandemic pay among all employees, which will result in a lower amount, but not exclude anyone.

“How do you determine who was caring for the privately funded beds and who was caring for the public?” she asked. “Again, they’re not really being 100 per cent clear on that, either.”

The Hamlets at Westsyde is partially subsidized by the province, with residents funded by Interior Health.

Attfield at The Hamlets said it is unclear how pandemic pay will work at his facility, but he is trying to get clear direction.

“We want to make sure we’re being fair to all of our employees,” he said.

© Kamloops This Week



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