Nurses in some Ontario hospitals are not being paid when they are told to go home to isolate because of COVID-19 exposure.
If the nurses test positive, they do get paid. But if they test negative, they must still stay home for 14 days without receiving their paycheque, hospital administrators in Hamilton and Niagara said.
Rafal Fratczak, a nurse at Greater Niagara General Hospital in Niagara Falls, was sent home for a 14-day isolation period in December, after an outbreak was declared on a unit where he was working.
He was told by hospital staff he wouldn't be paid.
"'Well, if it's a work-related exposure,' I said, 'Why would I not be paid?' " he said. "I inquired with the management. They didn't agree with it."
But Fratczak, who tested negative and had to remain at home for the isolation period, said he was told the provincial government's temporary funding for paying those in isolation had expired after the first wave.
"I was kind of enraged," he said. "I can't just go on without getting paid for two weeks. I mean, we all have bills. We have mortgages, we have people that we are supporting, so it just doesn't seem fair to me. So I was very upset."
He ended up tapping into his vacation time to make sure he'd be paid for the time he was home. Fratczak, who is chief steward for registered practical nurses who belong to the SEIU Healthcare chapter at Greater Niagara General, is pushing for the pay issue to be resolved.
'They feel very disrespected'
Earlier in the pandemic, between April and June, the province gave temporary funding and recommendations to pay asymptomatic, self-isolating hospital employees, said officials from Hamilton Health Sciences, St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton and Niagara Health.
Any employees sent to self-isolate between April and June could be paid for the time they were off. After June, that temporary benefit expired.
The provincial government says pandemic pay is the federal government's job, with some benefits available, such as $500 per week for up to two weeks of self-isolation. Ontario passed a law to make sure anyone self-isolating because of COVID-19 exposure won't lose their job, said Harry Godfrey, press secretary for Monte McNaughton, Ontario's labour minister.
"This legislation ensures those who stay home to self-isolate or care for loved ones will not be fired," Godfrey said in a statement to CBC News.
Fratczak doesn't blame his hospital managers. But an assurance he won't be fired doesn't go far enough.
"I'm just saying that the government, you just kind of forgot us after the first wave of COVID," he said.
Seeking a consistent approach
A majority of nurses reported feeling burnt out before the pandemic, and now, experts warn it's even worse. Nurses know every day they're going in to work in a high-risk environment, and if they're exposed, they may have to go home and isolate, unpaid.
"They feel very disrespected in this — they feel like the government believes that they're disposable," said Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses Association. "Call us heroes, all of that stuff that goes on every day, we all hear it, yet they are not feeling it."
That organization and the Ontario Hospital Association are asking the province to pitch in to ensure there's a consistent approach to pay for health-care workers in self-isolation.
"The last thing that [nurses] need is this pressure, right?" McKenna said.
Niagara Health, the system overseeing Fratczak's hospital, confirmed the provincial funding and recommendation to pay those in self-isolation expired this summer.
"We have been actively advocating to advance discussions regarding government compensation for staff and physicians who are required to self-isolate due to a potential workplace exposure," said Flo Paladino, Niagara Health vice-president.
'The morale in our department was just dreadful'
Gaurav Gupta, a doctor who works in the emergency department at Hamilton General and Juravinski hospitals, was on shift in December when some nurses he was working with got a call from hospital management advising them of a high-risk exposure and telling them they had to isolate for 14 days.
"That day the morale in our department was just dreadful," Gupta said. "They were shocked by the fact that they weren't going to be paid."
So was he. He thinks the province should fund hospitals to pay nurses sent home as a result of exposure, like they were in the first wave.
There's already a long list of reasons to be stressed if you're a nurse, he said. There are the extra protocols and infection control precautions, heavy workloads and the fear of contracting COVID-19 and taking it home to their families.
"They feel really aggrieved because they've made these sacrifices, and even the basic need for them to be paid is being overlooked," he said.
Weeks later, two nurses working with Gupta that day were told they'll be compensated for their time off. But Gupta said the policy of not paying for self-isolation could have the effect of discouraging nurses and others from being upfront about possible exposures, he said.
"It's almost a counterproductive measure not to support honesty," he said. "It's going to lead to a lot more problems."
'At their breaking point'
Wendy Stewart, spokesperson for Hamilton Health Sciences, confirmed that workers with a high-risk exposure who are required to self-isolate are not paid by HHS.
"In some cases, people are able to work from home and/or use other paid leave that might be available to them," Stewart said. "They are not, however, eligible for sick pay."
She said those nurses or others required to isolate can apply for a federal program called the Canada recovery sickness benefit. That benefit provides $500 for eligible people per week of isolation, for up to two weeks.
For other periods of isolation, nurses may also be eligible for other federal recovery benefits.
But Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, said it's unfair to expect nurses to figure out those benefit options.
"Nurses do not have the energy or the time nor should they start to do that," Grinspun said. "If hospitals have a shortfall of funding, go to the ministry. Don't put that on the back of nurses or any health-care workers for that matter."
Nurses working at St. Joseph's also were paid in the first wave if they had to self-isolate, said Agnes Bongers, St. Joe's public affairs director.
"The guidance by the Ministry of Health expired on June 30, 2020, and at that time St. Joe's resumed normal pay practices," she said. "Anyone that is directed through contact tracing by St. Joe's to self-isolate and is asymptomatic is not on paid sick leave and therefore could use vacation time or an unpaid leave."
When the office of Niagara Centre MPP Jeff Burch started hearing from nurses, he raised the issue in question period in the provincial legislature in November.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott responded that "that's a situation that we need to look into."
Burch sent another letter to the minister to follow up in December. He has not heard back.
"They were told they could apply for federal support, but that program provided less than a third of their wage," Burch wrote.
"Front-line health-care workers are at their breaking point, and for some inexplicable reason, this government is creating repercussions for these heroes when they are exposed to COVID-19."