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Unions warning of mass exodus of nurses due to working conditions, lack of pay

Last Updated Jun 1, 2021 at 12:00 am EDT

For many, the end of the pandemic seems close as vaccine supply increases and more Canadians get their shots. But for some healthcare workers, including a nurse who cares for patients with COVID-19, things are getting worse.

“We’ve been pushed beyond our limits,” says Birgit Umaigba, a Registered Nurse who works in the ER and ICU. “I’ve heard a lot of people are quitting, some people are on stress leave and some people are taking indefinite leaves. ”

Just recently, the Services Employees International Union and CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions released data from a survey of healthcare workers. The unions represent a combined 80,000 healthcare workers in the province’s hospital system, including 20,000 registered practical nurses (RPNs).

The President of the SEIU says 41 per cent of nurses indicated they want to leave their jobs once the pandemic is over.

“They’re exhausted, they now have accumulated mental health issues on top of things,” says Sharleen Stewart, President of the SEIU. “They’re just feeling like they’ve asked for life support and they’re not getting it. They’re really considering how much they’re valued by this government.”

With hospitals hit the hardest in the third wave, the union says these employees — many of whom are hired on a part-time basis — have been carrying the weight of the pandemic as staffing levels have worsened.

The polling data also shows that 93 per cent of the nurses are experiencing mental and physical exhaustion, with the unions calling on the government to provide supports for these healthcare workers.

“The post-traumatic stress that these workers have gone through, I know people don’t give that enough consideration right now,” Stewart says. “There is a lot of problems ahead of us that we don’t know yet, that these workers are starting to display.”

Umaigba tells CityNews that most of the people working in hospitals are completely “burnt out” having to work more days and longer hours, missing breaks, they’re unable to use the washroom in time and are forced to care for more patients.

“Sometimes you have to have two or three patients on ventilators, so it’s scary because you have to split yourself in terms of running around and meeting the needs of the patients,” she says. “It’s critical care and they need one-on-one attention, but unfortunately one nurse is looking after three patients.”

Staffing Shortages growing during the pandemic

Last September, CityNews reported on the thousands of healthcare workers who indicated they wanted to leave their career. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) tells CityNews it was mostly Personal Support Workers (PSW) who left.

Stewart says now it’s their registered practical nurses who have indicated that they want to leave. But she notes that there were staffing issues even prior to the pandemic that have been heightened during COVID-19.

“The answers are simple — full time jobs with livable wages, benefits and sick days,” Stewart says.

The Ministry of Long-Term Care says the province has taken steps to support staff in long-term care homes, including investing $321 million in temporary pandemic pay, which is set to expire at the end of June. Stewart is calling for that to be made permanent.

The ministry spokesman says the province has also launched a number of initiatives to support healthcare workers at long-term care homes.

“The need for PSWs and other healthcare staff in long-term care has never been greater,” reads the statement provided by spokesman Mark Nesbitt. “That’s why the government is investing up to $4.9 billion over the next four years to create more than 27,000 new positions for personal support workers, registered nurses and registered practical nurses in long-term care. This will allow us to deliver on the commitment to increase the hours of daily direct care to an average of four hours per day for each long-term care resident.”

Though Nesbitt adds that fixing “long-standing” staffing issues and challenges in long-term care homes will take time.

“The ministry continues to work diligently with partners across the health care sector to ensure that staffing needs in long-term care homes are met in real-time,” he said.

Inside hospitals, Umaigba says the staffing shortages are clearly evident. Nurses have been assigned to care for more patients on a daily basis, leading to a workload that’s not always manageable.

“You walk into alarms going off, you walk into nurses who have not had breaks on night shifts and who are trying to catch up,” she says. “You walk into a shift where you don’t really know how many nurses are going to be on shift that day. Sometimes we’re several nurses short or 10 nurses short, it’s always uncertainties.”

There are also calls for the government to repeal Bill 124 which would, in part, cap wage limits to a maximum of one per cent, which is below the rate of inflation.

“So they have the right to be able to negotiate for themselves,” Stewart says. “All of those have to be dealt with to keep those workers from exiting.”

Green Party Leader, Mike Schreiner, added his voice to these calls during the legislature on Monday.

“Nurses are tired of the premier calling them heroes and champions and then capping and cutting their wages,” Schreiner said. “I know healthcare workers across the province will cheer if the premier repeals Bill 124 and gives them the pay increase they earned and deserve.”

The province blamed the previous government for inheriting an “underfunded system,” but said it was increasing ICU capacity, building long-term care and adding thousands of additional PSWS and Nurses to the sector.

“We’re investing in an initial 2,000 nurses but it goes further to that, some additional 20,000 PSWs,” said Paul Calandra, Government House Leader. “There’s a lot of work that’s being done to increase the amount of nurses in the system, because we know how important they are.”

Calandra, who was responding the Green Party Leader, did not commit to making the pandemic pay for personal support workers permanent or to repealing Bill 124.

“We are still allowing those heroes who work in the system to see the benefits of their hard work, that has not been taken away through Bill 124.”

CityNews reached out to the Ministry of Health for a statement, but did not hear back.

Healthcare workers say they’re underpaid for the work they’ve been doing and that’s one of the reasons why some are opting to leave.

“Ontario has had the lowest RN to population ratio in all of Canada and we’ve seen cutbacks of nurses,” Umaigba says. “My colleagues, thousands of them, are so discouraged by the fact that their workload has increased and there’s no incentive.”

The staffing challenge in the healthcare system also includes recruitment problems, with fewer healthcare workers entering the field. Stewart says these workers would be coming into a system that hasn’t been fixed.

“We’ve never reached a crisis like this,” says Stewart. “People aren’t coming into the profession at the pace that we need them too. Therefore the employers are forced to hire lesser skilled personal support workers and that is not the solution to this.”

Umaigba has been teaching for four years and says since these issues have been highlighted, a few students have reconsidered entering the field during a transformative year that has brought challenges, which also includes a shortage of instructors.

“A few students have dropped out of the program,” she says. “It’s more challenging for students. We’re trying to be as positive as we can and encourage students to remain in the program in order to graduate and become nurses, because we’re already so short.”

Nurses feeling “Burnt Out”

The Unions’ survey also found that one in three RPNs were denied paid time off when they were forced to isolate due to COVID-19.

Currently the province provides three sick days, which wouldn’t be enough for the two week isolation period.

“I had an RPN talk to me a couple of weeks ago who had to go off because she was ill from COVID-19 and had some mental health issues because of the working conditions,” Stewart says. “She did go back — she lasted four days and said she wouldn’t return. That’s the retention problem we have right now that we didn’t have pre-COVID.”

Umaigba was recently able to take 10 days off and has turned down future shifts at the hospital to focus on her mental health. However, for Umaigba, who is an independent contractor, that means no financial income during this time.

“I was having persistent nightmares of patients who have either passed or are on life-support machines,” she says. “I was drained, mentally and physically. It was time for me to take unpaid time off, for the safety of my patients and myself as well.”