On Monday, the Ontario Legislature will get back to work after an extended summer break thanks to the fact that Premier Doug Ford prorogued the session just as the Federal Election got underway. When Members of Provincial Parliament return to Queen’s Park there will be a lot of business for them to tackle, and one of the issues that Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner wants to make a priority is nursing.
At a press availability on Wednesday, Schreiner said that he’s sent an open letter to Premier Ford demanding immediate action on nursing shortages in Ontario hospitals, specifically the 18-to-20 per cent vacancy rate for nursing staff. The Green Party leader calls it a critical issue as the province continues to deal with the forth wave of the pandemic.
“It’s putting tremendous pressure on our healthcare system, especially frontline staff, and it’s putting patients at risk,” Schreiner said. “The Premier must act now to make sure that there are enough staff to care for patients without the risk of burnout.”
According to the Canadian Federation of Nurses there may be as many as 16,000 nursing vacancies in Ontario, and Schreiner blames harsh working conditions and low pay, a situation he describes as unacceptable yet fixable. “Nurses are the heart and soul and the backbone of Ontario’s COVID-19 response and many are burned out, stressed, and over worked after the past 18 months and it’s driving them away from the profession,” Schreiner added.
To help, Schreiner has a suggested a worklist for the Ontario government including more N95 respirators, mental health assistance, increased admissions to nursing baccalaureate programs, making pandemic pay permanent, and streamlining and expediting the process to license internationally trained nurses. He also recommended the repeal of Bill 124 so that hospitals can raise nurses’ salaries beyond the present one per cent limit for all government employees.
“A clear sign that the government is serious about respecting, protecting and paying nurses appropriately would be to kill Bill 124, and give them the ability to get the psychological support and the physical support for the backbreaking work that they’ve done the last 18 months, and even before the pandemic,” said Jackie Walker, the Nursing Division President of the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) and a trained registered practical nurse, who joined Schreiner for the announcement.
“As a union, we’re advocating for a universal wage of $35 per hour for registered practical nurses, this would be an indicator that the government acknowledges their value, skill and judgment and pay them appropriately,” Walker explained. “One nurse who I spoke to has been an RPN for more than 30 years said that morale has never been this low because of the excessive workloads.”
Those workloads may get heavier as more hospitals force unvaccinated staff members to take unpaid lave; Guelph General Hospital has set a deadline of October 12 for all staff members to get both their COVID-19 vaccine shots or face administrative action. Walker said that 90 per cent of her members are fully vaccinated, but concedes that their could be some staff loses because of vaccine mandates.
“The vast majority of RPNs support the mandatory vaccinations, for them it’s about being protected and knowing that the folks they’re working with side-by-side are protected and safe too,” Walker said. “This could put more pressure on the healthcare system, but that’s why we need a strong recruitment and retention plan. Many RPNs have multiple jobs due to a lack of full-time work, and the conflicting policies across different workplaces is also causing confusion.”
“The government needs to have one policy to make sure that the entire province is functioning the same, and the Provincial government needs to take leadership,” Walker added.
Speaking of leadership, Schreiner said that he’s ready to join the rest of the legislature to show some leadership to guide Ontario to a final end to the pandemic.
“The top priority is how we are addressing the fourth wave of the pandemic,” Schreiner said of the new sitting on Monday. “Addressing staffing shortages in healthcare is critically important, making sure our schools are safe is important, and so many businesses have reached out to me with concerns about the way that the government’s rolled out the vaccine certificate program.”
“As always, I’m ready to work with the government and opposition parties to make sure that we have a co-ordinated response,” Schreiner added optimistically.