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SJBPH emergency compensation: ‘This has become personal’

As the director of communications at San Juan Basin Public Health during part of the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel the need to weigh in on the investigation by La Plata County, into emergency compensation received by me and 29 others at SJBPH. This has become personal and I take issue with the implication of wrongdoing.

SJBPH is transparent in its policies and practices – there were no secrets. The EC policy was adopted by SJBPH’s Board of Health in 2015 and reaffirmed in 2019. Since 2011, the board has approved all personnel policies. Emergency compensation pay was included in SJBPH’s Finance Committee reports that were approved by the BOH. Much of this documentation is easily found on SJBPH’s website.

One of the conclusions in the receiver’s report reads: “Based on the Receiver’s input from outside entities, including CDPHE, it is not unreasonable for extra compensation to be paid during a public health emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic to those employees working significantly more hours than normal for an extended period of time. In fact, EC payments made to majority of the SJBPH exempt employees appear subjectively reasonable and are supported by the proper documentation as called for in the internal procedures.” Essentially, we were paid for hours worked and all time was documented.

Despite many BOH members indicating that they were fully aware of and approved the use of emergency compensation, Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton has contradicted herself on this point. She stated that she knew the policy existed yet also claims she “had zero awareness of emergency compensation and it was not discussed at a board meeting where I was present.”

Porter-Norton provided conflicting statements about her level of knowledge, regarding EC payments while on the BOH. Clearly, she had not done her due diligence as a board member by reviewing the documents in the board packets provided to her. Given her role in the transition of SJPBH to a county-run health department, this lack of due diligence is concerning.

No amount of emergency compensation could possibly make up for the wide-ranging impacts experienced by those of us in public health responding to the unprecedented challenge of a global virus. Our top objective was to reduce illness and prevent COVID-19 deaths, and we did this well. As I worked the pandemic, my physical and mental health deteriorated, and my family life suffered in ways much too personal to share here. During that time, many of us barely saw our families. After eight years in public health, I left in March of 2021. The strain was too great. The job I loved turned into a job I could no longer tolerate.

Like many in public health, I became a statistic of the pandemic. A study released in March 2023 by Harvard found that 46% of all employees in state and local public health agencies left their jobs during the multiyear study period covering the peak of the pandemic. The authors speculated that pandemic-related challenges facing public health workers — including criticism, harassment and personal threats – likely fueled the hefty job exodus.

During the pandemic, SJBPH staff were subjected to daily attacks on social media, in the press, on the street and even at our director’s home. It was my job to monitor these communications. Being on the receiving end of hate and rage is exhausting, and takes a toll. The hate and rage continue to this day.

In the end, the BOH’s conclusion was to make “minor” adjustments to its EC policy. Was this wasteful investigation necessary? Were the tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent on the investigation worth it? The irreparable damage has been done to my reputation and others like me who paid an unimaginably high price while doing our jobs as public health workers committed to protecting our community’s health during COVID-19.

Claire Ninde is the former director of communications at San Juan Basin Public Health.