Nova Scotia pandemic pay to select health-care workers ‘insulting,’ say union leaders

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WATCH: Union leaders say they’re disappointed that a special bonus for working during the pandemic will not be given to all essential workers in Nova Scotia. – Jul 8, 2020

Nova Scotia is restricting a bonus provided to health-care workers for their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic to those who have had contact with patients in the past four months, with few exceptions.

The Essential Health Care Workers Program was billed by Premier Stephen McNeil in May as a way to recognize “the hard work and unique challenges” health-care workers are facing during the outbreak which has left 63 people dead and more than 1,000 people in recovery to date.

The province’s largest public-sector union, the Nova Scotia General Employment Union (NSGEU), has called the province’s eligibility restrictions “insulting,” saying the pandemic’s strain on the health-care system was not limited to those with patient contact.

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According to an NSGEU memo to members sent out Tuesday and obtained by Global News, the provincial government has excluded anyone that “did not have patient or resident contact” from receiving the bonus.

According to that memo, only front-line health-care workers, group home workers — and select exceptions — will be able to collect from the fund. The contact rule means that in a single work environment, like a care home, those interacting with patients could receive the bonus, while some managers or schedulers may not.

“Clearly, our Premier either does not understand, or simply does not appreciate, the sacrifices and risks that are inherent to the work that many of our members have undertaken over the past four months,” said NSGEU President Jason MacLean in the memo.

“The work you do is incredibly valuable, especially during this time of crisis, and to have it overlooked by the Premier is insulting.”

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In emailed comments, the province initially declined to confirm or deny the patient/resident contact rule.

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After repeated requests for clarification from Global News, it said eligible employees include those working for public-funded entities, who are “front-line, non-management health care workers and working directly with patients/residents or members of the public on the front lines of COVID-19 who may be at risk of exposure to the virus as part of their work or who worked on the containment efforts.”

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That also includes staff at 811, lab and diagnostic imaging centres, and public health.

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“Employers are best positioned to clarify for an individual employee if they qualify based on their personal work experiences,” wrote Heather Fairbairn, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Wellness.

Both the NSGEU and CUPE Nova Scotia have advocated for the bonus to include all essential workers, but from the beginning, it was only promised to “eligible” front-line health-care workers.

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Those union presidents said many of their essential workers will be excluded, including some working in hospital settings.

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“I think the premier had an opportunity here and he chose frankly not to go to bat for all Nova Scotians,” said Nan McFadgen, president of CUPE Nova Scotia, which represents more than 18,000 public sector employees.

“It shouldn’t matter, I don’t think, if you worked at a desk, a cash register or a bed side. Essential is essential.”

“It’s insulting because everybody was left for the last 10 weeks to believe that they were going to get this pandemic pay, and now they’re being told, ‘Thank you for everything you did, but no thanks, you’re not getting this pandemic pay,'” added MacLean.

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Responding to those criticisms in a written statement, Premier Stephen McNeil said he worked hard — successfully — to expand the eligibility requirements for front-line health-care workers who did not qualify under existing federal stipulations.

“I was pleased with the decision to expand eligibility to health-care workers and soon, nurses and many others who would not have qualified previously will be getting bonus payments,” McNeil told Global News.

“Mr. MacLean is entitled to his opinion but I am very pleased to see about 43,000 front-line workers receive a bonus for coming to work and risking their health to protect ours.”

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Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, said her understanding is that the patient or resident contact rule means those who worked from home or were on leave during the pandemic would not receive the premium.

Most of her members will be eligible, she said in an interview.

The Essential Health Care Workers Program is administered by Nova Scotia, but is funded as part of a joint program by the province and the federal government.

The province contributed $13.4 million while the federal government contributed $80.5 million.

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The Department of Health and Wellness has now provided a list of publicly-funded staff who are eligible for the bonus, which will be paid out after July 12:

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  • Long-term care home nurses, continuing care assistants, program support workers, managers directly engaged in clinical care, and support services (housekeeping, food service, maintenance) who had frequent contact with residents
  • Home support workers and home care workers, along with nurses engaged in direct client care
  • Disability support program residential front-line staff of ARC, RRC, Small Option Homes, Group Homes, Developmental Residences and RCF
  • Paramedics and Dispatchers
  • 811 staff (telehealth associates, nurses, counsellors)
  • Transition House employees working with residents
  • Shelters/Pop-up shelter staff working with clients

Employees at the Nova Scotia Health Authority and IWK Health Centre with direct, regular contact with patients/families include:

  • Contracted security, laundry and housekeeping
  • Front-line care-risk in contact with people who may have COVID-19
  • Staff in the Emergency Department, COVID unit, assessment centres and intensive care unit
  • Those deployed to outbreak site engaged in care
  • Public Health employees
  • Lab services and phlebotomy (non-clerical; non-management)
  • Primary Health Care (non-physician; staff working directly with patients)
  • Staff working in renal locations with COVID patients
  • All other Inpatient Unit Staff (mat-child/MHA/med-surg)
  • Operating room and diagnostic imaging
  • Pharmacy – patient care only
  • Food Services, housekeeping (for patient care areas)
  • Housekeeping (for patient care areas)
  • Continuing care working directly with clients
  • Ambulatory care staff working directly with patients and the public (where still operational)
  • Cancer care, endoscopy and palliative care
  • Staff working in patient screening, and patient navigators
  • Staff working in Emergency, ELAU and Birth Unit
  • Staff working on In-Patient Unit with risk of COVID exposure
  • Staff working on Outpatient Clinic with risk of COVID exposure
  • Staff reassigned (voluntary) to continuing care
  • Hospital security services
  • Other staff with direct access to COVID units/staff
  • Diagnostic Services & Maritime Medical Genetic
  • Biomedical engineering servicing medical devices in patient care areas
  • Staff at the Health Association of Nova Scotia and those on the biomedical engineering front line

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