Hamilton doctors call on province to pay nurses self-isolating after negative COVID tests

A group of doctors from Hamilton emergency departments say the province should pay nurses who have to isolate after being exposed to COVID-19.

Hospital administrators in Niagara and Hamilton have said that some Ontario nurses don’t get paid during this self-isolation time, which can range from seven to 14 days, if they test negative for the virus. They also can’t work.

The Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) emergency physician group wrote to Health Minister Christine Elliott this week about its “deep concern.”

“This is certainly felt to be punitive by staff. It is perceived to show a lack of support for the many sacrifices they have made, and continue to make for their profession on a daily basis,” said the letter. 

Dr. Gaurav Gupta, who works in various HHS emergency departments, wrote the letter.

His efforts started after the hospital told two nurses on the same shift as him to get tested for COVID-19 and self-isolate after a colleague tested positive. They were also told that they wouldn’t be compensated for it.

“How are we going to manage after we get sent home with no pay?” Gupta remembers a nurse telling him. 

Health-care workers are afraid of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families, Gupta said. “This almost seemed like it was another pretty big blow to the nurses on that day.”

From April to June 2020, the letter says, an Ontario Health recommendation meant nurses were paid to self-isolate. But that expired, and the compensation ended.

“Morale and burnout has been an issue throughout the pandemic,” Gupta said.

Ontario Health referred questions to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, which said “human resources-related decisions, including decisions related to sick leave, are made by health-care organizations.”

But heading into self-isolation doesn’t necessarily mean a person is sick, meaning some workers don’t quality for sick pay under their collective agreements. 

This differs from what Elliott said during Question Period in November. 

“This was raised to me quite recently through the Ontario Nurses’ Association,” she said. “We want people to be paid for the work that they do, and if they’re not able to work because of an exposure to someone that they’re caring for, then that’s a situation that we need to look into.”

The ministry hasn’t said whether this is happening. It pointed CBC News to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. Minister Monte McNaughton was also copied on the physicians’ letter.

Jeff Burch, Niagara Centre NDP MPP, raised the issue in a letter to Elliott, saying the ministry was behind a directive to Ontario hospitals to stop paying self-isolating health-care workers. Elliott pointed him toward the Ontario Health recommendation.

The letter, Gupta said, has received “overwhelming” support from his fellow physicians. 

Health-care workers have a unique experience, he said, and risk virus exposure each day they head to work. At one staff huddle, he said, a nurse said it concerned her that families had no backup if health-care workers get sick and die. 

“Everyone is saying that we’re heroes. Everyone wants to bang pots and pans for us and cheer us on. But in the end, we really are humans,” Gupta said. 

Wendy Stewart, spokesperson for HHS, confirmed self-isolating workers aren’t paid by HHS. The organization says it supports its doctors’ letter to the government. 

“HHS staff and physicians make incredible contributions every day to protect our community against COVID-19. We applaud our emergency physicians for supporting their colleagues who they work with side-by-side on the front lines,” HHS said.

Nurses support the letter, and appreciate the doctors’ support, Gupta said. Physicians, nurses, and other health-care employees work in teams, so what affects one section of the team affects them all.

“This lack of a safety net for health-care staff sent home due to exposure at work is also counter-productive to the efforts at reducing the spread of COVID-19 within the healthcare environment,” the letter said.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) says it thanks their physician-colleagues for their solidarity on the message that nurses should be paid in full for lost time. 

“We are all in this global pandemic together, and value their strong voices in support of this important issue,” said the ONA in a statement. “Wages should be kept whole, whether it be from the employer or from a government-initiated COVID fund.”

The association called the issue “vital” and says it continues to lobby the government and employers. 

Employees can apply for the federal government’s Canadian Recovery Sickness Benefit, which gives workers who are sick or who must self-isolate $500 per week for up to two weeks. The government says people can apply for up to two weeks between September 2020 and 2021.

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