Is a ‘hero award’ appropriate for front-line veterinary staff?

May 28, 2020
Marc Rosenberg, VMD

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is the director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey.Growing up in a veterinary family, he was inspired to join the profession because his father was a small animal practitioner. Dr. Rosenberg has two dogs and three cats.In Dr. Rosenbergs private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wifethey have danced all over the world, including New York City, Paris and Tokyo. Dr. Rosenberg has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors for more than 30 years. He has hosted two radio shows, a national TV show and appeared in over 30 national TV commercials, all with pet care themes.

dvm360, dvm360 June 2020, Volume 51, Issue 6

The dilemma: Should you give special recognition to your front-line veterinary practice team in light of the fact that others were unable to work during COVID-19?

As for many veterinary practice owners, COVID-19 has been a monumental challenge for Dr. Jill Well. Over the past 17 years, she built a large suburban hospital with six veterinarians and a staff of 40. The clinic offers grooming, a retail center and home delivery. But the pandemic has devastated many in her community, and her practice was no exception.

All of the clinic’s elective options were put on hold, with only essential care being provided. Dr. Well understood this was the only way that the pandemic would be brought under control, but her practice nevertheless was turned upside down.

At the height of the shutdown, practice volume dropped to 35% of normal. No one except masked staff entered the clinic, and curbside service and Zoom consultations were the new normal. For the first time in her career she had to lay off nonessential team members. In consultation with her administrators, Dr. Well had to manage a dwindling clinic bank account, panicky clients and a hospital staff afraid both of COVID-19 and of not being able to give proper care to their patients. Dr. Well knew that eventually government financial aid would come and the virus would subside, but she’d did not know when or even if the practice would survive. It was, in short, her worst nightmare.

The receptionists, technicians and veterinarians who continued to work at the practice each day were devoted and committed to patient care. They observed all CDC recommendations, and clinic hygiene was ramped up to the maximum. This, combined with the fact that patients entered the clinic unaccompanied by their human caretakers, allowed the staff to remain as safe as possible. Dr. Well saw this group of employees as truly heroic.

For the practice to succeed, Dr. Well had to manage the immediate crisis while simultaneously conducting short- and long-term planning. Part of her long-term plans include rehiring staff and restoring practice normalcy when the virus subsides. She also decided to provide what she called “hero rewards” for those staff members who remained on the front lines during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had not decided whether this would be a bonus, gift or some other token of well-earned appreciation. But when she presented her proposal to her administrators she received some unexpected resistance.

Both the hospital’s medical director and nonmedical staff director were opposed to the idea of a “hero reward,” noting that staff members who were quarantined, thrust into mandatory home childcare or over age 60 had no choice but to stay home. They all wanted to work and do their part at the clinic during the crisis but were refused the opportunity. Why, the administrators wondered, should some of their coworkers be labeled heroes and given rewards for doing work that others were denied?

Dr. Well responded by saying that despite the circumstances and restrictions on some staff members, those who worked the front lines must be acknowledged. Her advisors first recommended that she remove the title “hero” from her proposal. All of her staff members could be and would be heroes if given the opportunity. In addition, the virus recovery period could be celebrated by the entire reunited workforce post COVID-19 in the form of an appropriate group gesture.

In the end, Dr. Well decided that the entire staff should be congratulated for the commitment and sacrifice they made to help patients during the pandemic. Those who worked in the practice would receive “hazard” pay and those working from home would be acknowledged and thanked for supporting their coworkers. Dr. Well went on to assure her staff that the hospital would survive this challenge as a team.

Do you think Dr. Well’s idea of honoring front-line staff was fair to those who were unable to work in the practice during the pandemic, or do you think her decision to honor the entire team was the wise one? What would you have done? Email us your thoughts at dvm360news@mmhgroup.com.

Dr Rosenberg’s response:

COVID-19 has placed veterinary practices—indeed, all of veterinary medicine—in uncharted waters. Our focus and crisis preparation have always been directed toward animal disease outbreaks, such as parvovirus, canine influenza and various viruses that affect herd health. A human pandemic was not in our game plan.

Dr. Well’s instincts told her to reward those troops on the front lines, but she was reminded that all staff members were doing their jobs as part of a team effort and advised that staff accolades not be one-sided. Dr. Well did the best she could in a crisis, and I agree with her ultimate decision, but what is more important is that she wisely sought the advice of her administrative staff to assist her in making that decision. We should not act alone in a crisis because 21st-century veterinary medicine is a team effort.

Dr. Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of the scenarios Dr. Rosenberg describes in his column are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.

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