CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA) — Public health departments across the country have been putting in lots of overtime since the pandemic began, much of it unpaid, that includes those right here in central Illinois. But they say they know it’s part of keeping the public safe.
For some of them, work has even picked up with vaccine clinics. On top of that, many of their jobs now are much different from what they were hired for, all to accommodate the needs of the public.
“It’s expected that public health will step up during an emergency, but that’s not necessarily for an entire year,” said Champaign-Urbana Deputy Administrator Awais Vaid. But as we know, that’s exactly what happened.
Health department employees rose to the occasion to keep the community safe and informed throughout this pandemic. Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Deputy Administrator Awais Vaid says that extra work has inevitably meant longer hours.
“All of our administration team have been answering e-mails, phone calls on weekend, early mornings, and all of those hours don’t get counted,” Vaid explained.
“The work… really, it never stops,” said Whitney Greger, Assistant Operation Lead for C-UPHD. “For the last year, I’ve been working over that 40-hour week, whether it’s staying in the office longer or answering e-mails longer or answering text messages longer,” she said. But she recognizes that all public health employees are going through the same thing. That includes those in Vermilion County.
“We are very much aware of the fact that sometimes someone will walk into the office and say, ‘I need to take the rest of the afternoon off,’ and we’ll say okay,” said Public Health Administrator Doug Toole. He added that his role means even one day off is rare. “I’m putting in a lot of hours. Except for a few major holidays, there tends to be a day or so a month I’m not here.”
But while those demands can be exhausting, it’s the reward of what they do that keeps them going.
“A life saved is like saving mankind,” said Vaid. “A lot of our employees believe that, if you are educating one person, if you are preventing one case of COVID-19, if you are vaccinating one person… that is motivation enough to continue.”
On top of overtime, a lot of health department roles have changed.
“All of our case investigators in adult services, case managers in adult services, we have hygienists, program coordinators, health educators, environmental specialists – all of those people are now working on COVID-10 outreach, COVID-19 planning, COVID-19 response, in addition to their other responsibilities,” said Vaid.
Colleen Lehmann with Douglas County Health said their employees are paid their regular salary for hours worked, and if they exceed the usual contracted hours, they are given comp time for the difference.
In addition, Macon County Public Health Administrator Brandi Binkley says that, on a regular basis, their staff works a lot of extra time. “Public health is underfunded and usually short-staffed, so people wear many hats and certainly go above and beyond to ensure our community had the programs and services they need and deserve,” she explained. “Anyone that qualifies for overtime (non-exempt) get that, of course.”
Binkley went on to say that, in the pandemic, the time worked has been more. She said they did receive some grant funding that allowed overtime to be paid, but it’s temporary and rare for a grant to cover overtime.