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Government / WBAA

Tippecanoe County Health Department requested hazard pay for working the pandemic. County council tabled the issue

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Khala Hochstedler and Dr. Jeremy Adler requested hazard pay for health department staff from the county council

Next month, the Tippecanoe County Council is expected to make a decision on whether to grant hazard pay to some 33 employees of the county health department.

To fund the payments, the health department asked to use roughly $100,000 dollars of a grant it secured for reimbursing administrative costs incurred during vaccine distribution efforts.

At its February meeting, the council tabled the issue - saying they worried about granting hazard pay to health department staff over other county staff, specifically police and corrections workers.

Council Vice President Kathy Vernon said she couldn’t justify using the funds for healthcare workers.

“If we’re going to give, for 22 employees, a thank you of $9,600 to $800 dollars, what about anybody else?” she asked. “I just can’t support that, looking out and seeing all of our other employees that worked through hazard conditions as well.”

Councilmember John Basham put it even more bluntly.

“So this is money you’re getting for doing your job, or what?” he asked.

During the meeting, Khala Hochstedler, administrator of the health department, pointed out that the council had granted hazard pay to the prosecutor's office.

“I’m asking for the same respect for my staff that has been working diligently,” she said.

Since that meeting, Hochstedler has stepped down from her role, citing that county council meeting and the amount of uncompensated work she was doing over the course of the pandemic.

“The health department has been the lead this whole entire time for the community,” she said. “I thought that was not exactly fair and a little insulting, to be honest.”

The issue over hazard pay highlights the long days and often unpaid work Hochstedler said she and the department have been doing over the nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s some of us that are exempt, you’re not getting comp time or anything,” she said. “When you’re working 70-90 hours repeatedly, repeatedly, week to week, getting woken up at night for calls, for transport, working every weekend, it just doesn’t sit well.”

Across the country, an esteemed 1 in 5 healthcare workers have quit their jobs since the start of the pandemic. Of those surveyed, the top reasons for leaving were the pandemic, poor pay, worker burnout, and finding better opportunities.

Hochstedler said there was constant pressure to make sure people’s needs were being met. The department performed contact tracing in-house, coordinated aid for the city’s homeless population, and provided groceries for people in isolation and quarantine, among many other duties.

“We work for every citizen of Tippecanoe County,” Hochstedler said. “You don’t want to let anyone down or be perceived in the community that you’re not doing your best.”

But as the pandemic continued, Hochstedler said members of the public became frustrated with continued mandates. Late last year, she began receiving death threats.

“Everyone has pandemic fatigue, but we don’t need to be taking that out on our healthcare workers. They are literally showing up every day whether that’s in the hospital or whether that’s in the health department. There needs to be understanding and not taking it out on them,” Hochstedler said.

And, she said, it wasn’t just the public that began to display pandemic fatigue.

“The support of elected officials during the pandemic across the board did wane, and that is unfortunate,” she said.

Health Department Officer Dr. Jeremy Adler said he hopes the county council will approve the hazard pay for staff at next month's meeting.

“Our health department staff has worked tirelessly for the last two years due to the pandemic. Thousands of hours of overtime. Nights, weekends, some holidays,” he said. “We’re working with the county council to see if we can get approval for that to reimburse and adequately compensate the health department staff who really went above and beyond the call of duty throughout the pandemic.”

County council president Kevin Underwood did not respond to WBAA’s request for comment.

The county council’s next meeting is scheduled for March 8.