Region’s top doc talks working two jobs during a pandemic and racking up $500K+ in overtime

Public Health Sudbury and Districts has been criticized following the release of the 2021 Sunshine List, which cited medical officer of health and CEO Penny Sutcliffe’s earnings for the year as reaching $800,726

With health-care workers logging unprecedented overtime throughout the pandemic, Public Health Sudbury and Districts’ medical officer of health and CEO has been no exception.

“We’re certainly all, including myself, very, very weary, there’s no doubt,” Penny Sutcliffe told Sudbury.com this week. 

“It’s hard to convey the intensity, and it’s almost like when you’ve been through something very intense, unless you’ve been with other people it’s very hard to explain the depth of that.”

Although eager to be transparent regarding her own role in managing the local response to the pandemic, Sutcliffe was quick in her conversation with Sudbury.com to clarify the important role and significant workload all health-care professionals have also been contributing.

“Our team has been unbelievably responsive,” she said of the 61,559 hours of overtime logged last year by Public Health Sudbury and Districts staff, adding that they’ve approached everything with a “work first, ask questions later” mentality to complete their necessary duties. 

“I could not have asked for a better team, be it the board of health, management or staff. It’s been a real honour and it’s taken a toll on all of us, for sure.”

Public Health Sudbury and Districts came under fire in recent days for Sutcliffe’s 2021 salary, which hit $800,726 according to the Sunshine List released last week. This list includes the salaries of those public sector employees who earn $100,000 or more in a given year.

Sutcliffe’s 2021 wage included $219,000 due to overtime worked in 2020 but not paid until 2021, and a further $263,000 in overtime pay in 2021.

Board chair René Lapierre said that although managers typically absorb some unpaid overtime in their regular duties, the COVID-19 pandemic kicked overtime into a new gear that necessitated compensation.

“Public Health has never been an agency that was built for a 24/7, 365 operation, and once the pandemic hit, that was almost what it was,” he said. 

“It really hasn’t stopped until about three to four months ago when we started slowing down a little bit, but it’s still more than we’re used to.”

On top of that is the fact Sutcliffe has been pulling double duty in filling the Associate Medical Officer of Health position, which typically serves as her second-hand person. As such, she’s “it.” The assistant position has been vacant since April 2020 when Dr. Ariella Zbar left the job after just over three years. 

“If we would have had someone there, this impact would have been less on Dr. Sutcliffe and others as well, because it would have been another (full-time equivalent) to be able to take on some of this work,” Lapierre said. 

With overtime stripped from Sutcliffe’s 2021 earnings, her wage is brought down to $318,000, which is less than the $354,591 she earned in 2020 and places her wage as somewhere in the middle among other medical officers of health in the province. 

The average 2021 salary among medical officers of health was $325,765 and the average salary among medical officer of health/CEO positions was $437,159.

When it comes to Public Health Sudbury and Districts staff, including Sutcliffe, Lapierre clarified that every minute of claimed overtime has been accounted for. 

A day in the life of Sutcliffe during the pandemic has typically begun at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and finds her set up at her home office by 6 or 6:30 a.m.

Until she calls it a day by 8-10 p.m. most nights, she said the only breaks have been to visit the washroom and refrigerator.

This routine has continued “whether it was a Friday night or Saturday with very few differences,” she said. “It was very hard to distinguish a weekday from a weekend.”

During this time, she said a walk to the end of the driveway would have been considered an outing.

“I’m making sure human resources and our finances and all of these things are sorted out and the board is apprised of all of the issues as well as the excessive workload of our staff,” she said, adding that everything, from the advent of vaccines, the realities of the COVID-19 virus and which health measures were most effective rolled out as the pandemic progressed.

“You’re building the plane as you’re flying it,” she said of the “rapidly-evolving science” that required effective health measures, vaccination clinics and COVID-19 testing.

Alongside exercise and meditation, Sutcliffe credits an understanding family – particularly her husband – in helping her manage the “ridiculously intense” long hours. 

“When a person is under a lot of stress, they’re not always the nicest person to be around, I would imagine,” she said with a chuckle, adding that there hasn’t been much room for relationships when she works from before sunrise to after sunset. She also hasn’t had much time to contribute to the day-to-day operations of her household or to spend with an ailing family member.

“It has been very difficult for so many people during the pandemic, whether it’s visiting a loved one in a long-term care home or not being able to hold funeral services, etc, this has taken a toll on all of us.”

Although there’s a potential light at the end of the tunnel in dealing with the pandemic, and work hours are beginning to shorten slightly, Sutcliffe said health-care workers aren’t out of the woods yet.

“It’s not overnight and we’re going to have to pace ourselves, listen to our employees,” she said, adding that there’s a two-year backlog of public health services to get through as a result of 80 per cent of their resources being tied up in COVID-related efforts since the pandemic began.

Staff have vacation days that need to be used and Public Health efforts will need to shift toward recovery from the pandemic. 

Efforts to recruit an Associate Medical Officer of Health are ongoing, Lapierre said, which would help reduce some workload from Sutcliffe and some of her colleagues who have been filling the vacancy.

“Those are very hard to come by, not only in Ontario but across Canada, so we have a national recruiting firm looking for us as we speak,” he said. 

It’s unclear whether managers will receive overtime pay funded through the province again in 2022, Lapierre said, adding that it will depend on how the year rolls out.

“As long as we don’t get another wave or nothing else comes up it should be able to slowly tamper as the year goes by,” he said. 

“It’s been ongoing, still going, and it’s 24/7, so we’ve got to do the best that we can to protect the public, and that’s what we did and that’s what Dr. Sutcliffe and her team did … and I’m happy that they were there.”

Although the future remains unpredictable, Sutcliffe said the past two years have taught her and Public Health Sudbury and Districts a great deal about how to adapt, and that she’s confident they’ll be able to handle whatever comes their way more easily than they have in the past.

“We’ve got a pretty good grounding on how we would ramp up and respond across the system,” she said. “We’re prioritizing what needs to happen now.”

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com. 

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