AUGUSTA — If workers get sick with COVID-19 and are unable to come into work, most state and many municipal and private-sector workers get paid COVID-19 sick time so they don’t have to use their regular sick time or vacation time for their time out of work.

But some hospital workers in Maine are raising alarms that they are not getting such benefits even as they’re on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Laura Gosselin, a nurse at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, said she loves a lot of things about the job she has worked for 31 years, but feels it is a slap in the face of nurses and others risking their own health to tend to patients that, if they become infected with COVID-19 and have to miss work, it costs them some of their hard-earned regular time off.

Especially when it seems, to her, that so many other workers in other nonmedical fields do get COVID-19 sick time so they don’t have to use their own regular sick or vacation time if they become infected with coronavirus and can’t work.

“My husband and several friends work for the state of Maine and get paid from a COVID fund, thus not having to use their own personal sick time,” Gosselin said, adding that her brother works for the city of Augusta, and her son-in-law works for a farm supply company, and both get COVID-19 pay if they are out sick with the virus. “I find it appalling that nurses have been at the frontlines of this pandemic and we are treated this way when we, ourselves, become sick. I hear this every single day from co-workers. It is not right. We deserve better. Our government and employer has let us down.”

MaineGeneral officials said they appreciate and greatly respect the work of their nurses and other employees, especially through the pandemic, but say their earned time off benefits are generous and that is how they are compensated if they are out of work with COVID-19, or any other illness.

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“Throughout the pandemic staff have given so much, including extraordinary service to provide the best care to our fellow community members,” said Joy McKenna, spokesperson for MaineGeneral. “Senior leadership and the board have sought to recognize and honor this level of performance and continues to seek ways to support staff. The pandemic requires that MaineGeneral and all health care employers to carefully balance these objectives with that of ensuring that we maintain access to the best quality health care services to our patients and families.”

McKenna said if an employee gets sick with COVID-19, or any other illness, they use what she described as their generous earned time off bank. Earned time off includes both sick and vacation time, and employees accumulate days off based on their time with the company and how many hours they work. A full-time employee with between five and 15 years of service would earn 31 days off in a typical year. And employees can carry those hours over into the next year, if they wish, up to 240 hours.

Gosselin said she contracted COVID-19, which she is sure she got at work, from another employee. She was out of work from the Sunday after Thanksgiving for 10 days. That caused her to miss four 10-hour shifts she would have worked at the Augusta hospital as she followed Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention protocol and hospital policy by staying out of work while she recovered. To keep money coming in during that time off with COVID, she used some of her earned time off.

She said she complied with orders at the hospital to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but still got the virus anyway. She said she also then inadvertently gave it to several of her family members.

She said in the past she has only rarely gotten sick and missed work, but this year she missed a couple of days with a cold and then had to use four more days of her earned time when she was out with COVID-19 last month.

“I feel as though I was punished by having my earned time taken from me when I did what I was told and got the vaccine,” Gosselin said.

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Kellie Coates, a MaineGeneral nurse for almost six years, said she did not get COVID-19, but she had close contact with a co-worker at the hospital who tested positive for COVID-19 there. Coates had to quarantine and have two negative tests before she could come back to work. That cost her only one workday, because of the way her schedule worked out, and that 10 hours of pay, which she made up for by taking it from her earned time off.

Her close contact at work came just before Thanksgiving, forcing her into quarantine “so I missed Thanksgiving with both sides of my family, because I was exposed at work,” Coates said.

She said her mother works in housekeeping for the state and gets COVID-19 sick time, as does her father, who works in maintenance at a senior living facility.

She said some of her co-workers have been out for weeks at a time due to COVID-19, including one who had to start their quarantine over because during the first quarantine the worker was exposed to someone in their household who tested positive.

In response to a letter about nurses not getting COVID-19 sick time, which Gosselin sent to hospital officials, Chuck Hays, president and CEO of MaineGeneral Health, responded to her promptly to say that nurses at MaineGeneral get worker’s compensation if they contract the virus at work. Gosselin said she couldn’t prove she got it at work, in part because she had contact with others in the community. So her claim was denied, which she said was another slap in the face.

McKenna said MaineGeneral follows workers compensation rules and offers it to any employee who receives a work-related injury or illness, but the workers compensation system requires proof the illness or injury occurred at work.

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Gosselin said she has no intentions of leaving MaineGeneral and said she loves her co-workers, her immediate managers and her patients, but is frustrated that nurses have to use their earned time off if they contract COVID-19. She said many others there feel the same way, but didn’t dare comment on it publicly for fear of putting their jobs at risk.

She said she has heard other Maine hospitals have similar policies.

However, at least one major health care provider in the state, MaineHealth, which includes Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals, does provide dedicated COVID-19 sick time to employees who contract the virus, according to John Porter, a spokesman for MaineHealth.

Porter said if workers there miss work due to contracting COVID-19, they are paid for that time away from work, and it does not cost them anything from their paid time off bank, which includes both sick and vacation time.

“We do it because that’s what is best for our patients in the communities; we do it because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we want people to know, if they get COVID, we don’t want them in the workplace,” he said. “If you’ve got active COVID, and you’re out, you’re getting paid time off. And it doesn’t count against your paid time off bank.”

Northern Light Health, which operates Northern Light Inland Hospital in Waterville, offers several benefits to employees who are sick with COVID-19, according to spokesman Andrew Soucier.

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“The specific benefits that employees can access when they are ill vary by situation,” Soucier said. “Employees who contract COVID-19 through community exposure have access to paid time off, and Northern Light Health provides up to 80 hours of additional time to employees who exhaust their existing paid time off while recovering. Employees also have access to company-funded short-term disability. For work-related illness, workers compensation benefits apply.”

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act in 2020 required some private employers and state and local governments to provide workers with up to 80 hours of time off if they contracted COVID-19.

In 2021 the state, according to a Department of Administrative and Financial Services document, offered most state employees “COVIDcare” administrative leave, modeled on the federal FFCRA program, through which they could use up to 80 hours of paid COVID leave over the course of the year, if they missed work due to the virus.

But the federal and state programs provide exemptions for health care providers and emergency responders, whose employers are not required to offer any additional sick time off due to the pandemic, one of several exemptions to the act.

Augusta City Manager Susan Robertson said the city provided city workers who contracted COVID-19 the emergency paid sick leave as required under the FFCRA and, once that expired, has continued to provide that benefit as administrative leave for full-time and permanent part-time employees. It was approved through the end of this month and she expects the city to extend it through March 2022, and it could be extended further, if needed. It provides city workers with up to 80 hours of paid sick leave. If an employee uses up that 80 hours, they can use their other accrued time such as sick or vacation time.

McKenna said MaineGeneral employees who have exhausted their earned time off in a year then move to unpaid leave, if they miss additional time. However, she said during the pandemic the organization has allowed employees who have exhausted their earned time to move into negative earned time, drawing on future earned time off, so they can continue to be paid while out of work.

She said early in the pandemic MaineGeneral’s board and senior leaders prioritized not furloughing or laying off any employees and said annual raises have continued throughout the pandemic, despite overall budget challenges, and this fall all employees received a retention bonus.

Gosselin acknowledged that bonus, but said the $489 she got from that did not cover the 40 hours of work she lost to COVID-19.

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