Ontario nurses are past their breaking point, burnt out and left believing there’s no hope for change — that’s the message from a group of health care unions calling on the province to take “immediate steps” to solve staffing shortages.
“Immediate steps, like yesterday,” said Cathryn Hoy, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association.
Those steps start with the immediate repeal of wage restraint legislation Bill 124 and restoring collective bargaining, Hoy said.
“Many Canadian nurses, believe it or not, made out their wills before going to work as the pandemic began,” she said.
“They did that because they feared they would die but they went in anyway.”
The association was one of three health care unions — the ONA, CUPE and the Service Employees International Union, which together represent some 120,000 health care workers across the province — sounding the alarm over staffing shortages in Ontario’s hospitals. Their call comes as health care staff are said to be leaving the field in droves, leaving some hospitals unable to properly staff their emergency departments.
Bill 124 ‘a conversation for another day’: minister
According to the Ontario Nurses’ Association, about 25 hospitals in Ontario were forced to scale back sections of their facilities on the long weekend due to staff shortages.
As concerns have mounted, Ontario’s health minister surfaced this week saying the province is looking at how to get internationally trained nurses working here as quickly as possible.
As for Bill 124, Sylvia Jones told The Canadian Press: “that is a conversation for another day.”
Michael Hurley, president of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, told reporters Friday that Ontario has the fewest hospital staff to population ratio of any province in Canada. Successive Ontario governments have underfunded hospitals and closed 25,000 acute care beds over the last 30 years, Hurley said.
Based on the recent provincial budget, Hurley said the Financial Accountability Office projects the Ford government will “significantly underfund our hospitals against their real cost for the next five years.”
That, he says, means staff shortages will increase as workloads grow and pressures mount.
The unions say they have made many attempts to be heard by the provincial government, but their concerns have so far gone unaddressed.
Unions issue 5-point prescription for change
As a result, they issued a five-point plan that they say must be implemented immediately to begin to remedy health care pressures. They include:
1. Support for the existing workforce through mental health supports, investments to make hospital workplaces safer, full-time employment, and on-site support such as child care.
2. Raise wages to attract and retain staff, including by repealing Bill 124.
3. Financial incentives to discourage retirement and boost hiring and retention.
4. Provide incentives to recruit nurses, paramedics and others licensed but not working in hospitals.
5. Expand post-secondary spaces for health disciplines including waiving tuition and creating financial incentives to study and practice in Ontario.
Jones has said her role in the last number of weeks has been to meet with organizations and individuals in the sector who have solutions, and to listen to their feedback.
The health care minister has said that work involves what the government has already been doing for the past four years, which includes increasing the number of workers in the system — she touts more than 10,000 added since the start of the pandemic.
In a statement to CBC News Friday, a spokesperson for the health minister said provinces across the country are facing the same pressures, and that Ontario has provided a $5,000 retention bonus for nurses.
The statement from spokesperson Stephen Warner says Ontario has financially assisted 14,000 personal support worker students to complete their training. It also says it’s invested $12.4 million into access to mental health and addiction supports.
“We know more work needs to be done and continue to work with all partners,” the statement says, citing 140 public hospital corporations, the regulatory colleges and unions.
“To that end, the Minister has directed the College of Nurses and the College of Physicians and Surgeons to report back in two weeks on a plan to expeditiously register new internationally educated health care staff.”
Shortages could peak before more challenges in fall: exec
Meanwhile, an executive at the provincial agency overseeing Ontario’s hospitals says while the system is experiencing staffing strain at “unprecedented” levels, the situation may improve in the coming weeks.
Dr. Chris Simpson, executive vice-president at Ontario Health, says the staffing crunch is affecting hospitals of all sizes across the province with unprecedented persistence and severity. Ontario Health says 10 hospitals have had to temporarily close emergency departments since June due to lack of nursing services.
He says the staffing shortages may peak in the coming weeks as the current wave of COVID-19 recedes but there may be future challenges in the fall, and solutions to quickly bring in more workers are being discussed.
For their part, the unions say they are prepared to meet with the province any time, as early as today, if its willing.
“It really was a year ago that we should have had this conversation. We could see this coming and unfortunately, we haven’t had the time with the premier,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare. “He hasn’t stepped up.”