Ontario short thousands of nurses as staff burn out during COVID-19 pandemic

A nurse opens up about exhaustion, nightmares and making less than a temp for the same work

By Cynthia Mulligan and Meredith Bond

As more than 8,000 nursing jobs go unfilled in Ontario, one nurse is speaking out about the physical and emotional toll months of staff shortages and COVID-19 case surges are taking on many health care workers.

Nancy Halupa has been an ER nurse for more than two decades, but says in the last few years the pandemic has left her with nightmares and the feeling her profession is undervalued and disrespected.

“I don’t sleep. I have nightmares. All the time,” said Halupa. “Sometimes I don’t remember if I actually had this patient or if it was just in my dream, but I’m always there. And then I wake up in a cold sweat thinking ‘Oh my God, did I do that in real life? Did that really happen?'”

She started the Twitter and Instagram account @nursewithsign416 in order to speak out against the Ontario government for the position it has put nurses in.


The reason she started her campaign was to try and improve the profession for future nurses.

“I love my job … I love this profession and the way things are going, this profession is going to die.”

Halupa calls Bill 124’s cap on wage increases insulting. The bill limits all public sector workers to annual increases of one per cent, which is less than the rate of inflation. “That was the kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of us.”

The leaders of the NDP, Liberals and Green Party joined union leaders demanding the Ford government repeal Bill 124. Even before the pandemic began, advocates were calling for healthcare workers to at least get a cost of living increase. Many nursing groups and unions say this has already led to a wave of resignations and could contribute to the increasing staff shortages they are facing in the profession.

Halupa claims the hospital she works at uses private agencies to fill the gaps and those nurses are making close to double what she does.

“Those nurses are getting paid upwards of $100 to be at our hospitals. So if they can afford to pay these private agencies to staff or hospitals, they can also afford to pay their own staff,” said Halupa.

The Ontario Health Association confirmed hospitals have had to rely on staffing agencies to “fill short-term needs” and hospitals have seen “an extraordinary increase in agency billing rates paid to agency staff.”

They added these “unprecedented increase in rates is further exacerbating human resource challenges. “While short-term staffing agency wages are inflated, hospitals provide benefits and pensions to employees and therefore total compensation in hospitals is far better in the long run.”

CityNews reached out to the Ministry of Health but has yet to receive a response.

The Registered Nurses Association also confirmed what Halupa told Citynews, adding there are currently 8,000 unfilled nursing positions in this province.

They say many nurses are leaving full-time positions to work at private staffing agencies, where they can make more money and set their own hours.

She said nurses are both physically and mentally exhausted.

“We get yelled at so much there now because of the visitor policy,” Halupa said, noting that nurses didn’t make the rules, but must enforce them.

“Visitors can’t come in and so [loved ones are] calling constantly, which I totally understand, but then that’s just more work for the nurse,” she added. “I don’t think they realize how much extra work this pandemic has caused for us.”

Halupa still loves being a nurse, but it has become harder and harder with each passing wave of COVID-19 infections.

“I liken this profession to being in an abusive relationship,” she said. “You know you shouldn’t be in it any more, you hit your wall, and you should quit but you can’t walk away.”

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