On Thursday, members of the Ontario Nurses Association met with Premier Doug Ford in-person to discuss the help that their 60,000 members need right now to hire, retain, and assist nurses through to the end of the pandemic and beyond. “We just need someone to respect us,” ONA First Vice-President Angela Preocanin said in an interview with Guelph Politico after their meeting with Premier, which she says was actually hopeful.
“We asked for some commitment from the Premier about presenting some solutions on how they can help retain nurses, and he did commit to meet with us next week,” Preocanin said. “So we’re hopeful that he will come back with a plan. We really need positive action right now from the government. […] We will not be happy with anything less than a commitment.”
A commitment to what? The ONA talked to the Premier about bringing back retired nurses to lend support and mentorship, and they also discussed creating new programs to allow Register Practical Nurses (RPNs) to become Registered Nurses (RNs) faster, which would also require some additional funding from the government for training. The big issue though is the continued existence of Bill 124, which limits raises to Provincial employees, including nurses, to just one per cent per year.
“Bill 124, the wage suppression and the inability to actually freely collective bargain has impacted our members significantly,” Preocanin explained noting that frontline workers in police services have seen a 31 per cent increase in wages at the same time that nurses had seen just 14 per cent. Ontario’s nurses, Preocanin added, have not even seen a cost of living increase in the last decade.
“Bill 124 has been a major issue with our nurses, it really has affected our nurse retention, and we did make sure that message was loud and clear: [Ford] must repeal this bill,” Preocanin explained. “I hope that the Premier shows us how important we really are, and I have some hope that he will make a commitment to us, and help retain nurses. We’re in such a crisis, our healthcare system needs proper funding, and it involves a lot of commitment from this government.”
The Provincial government also sounded hopeful coming out the meeting. They did not make any official commitment to any of the ONA’s proposals, including the repeal of Bill 124, but they did say that more funding for healthcare is not solely the responsibility of Queen’s Park.
“While out government has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars to hire more nurses, we know more needs to be done to further expand staffing,” read a joint statement from Ford and Minister of Health Christine Elliott after the ONA meeting.
“These efforts must be supported by the Federal government paying its fair share of health care spending. Every single province is feeling the same strain on their health care system, including capacity issues, staffing shortages, and surgical backlogs. No province can do it on their own. We need the Federal government to be a true funding partner by increasing the Canada Health Transfer.”
Preocanin said that this is more than a matter of money though. “My fear is the number of our members who are going to suffer from long standing mental health issues related to what they’ve seen [during the pandemic]. We’ve never seen death like this. We’ve never seen a crisis like this.”
The post-traumatic stress of the last few years have compounded systemic pressures in Ontario hospitals, Preocanin explained. For too long, there have been fewer nurses for more and sicker patients, while the nursing shortage has been allowed to get as high as 20,000 people. Adding to the work pressure is the mental health pressure. Nurses have no outlet to vent, no human resources support, and in many cases, they have to go home and put on a happy face for their families.
“Our nurses are going home and they are suffering, and some of them are suffering in silence,” Preocanin added. “Our nurses are burnt out, they feel devalued, they’re demoralized, and they’re decimated. They’re telling us that they don’t get a break, and when they do get a break, it’s to go into the bathroom to cry because they’re so stressed at work, the workload is absolutely unbelievable.”
The workload will continue at unbelievable levels once the pandemic is over, or at least once the Omicron wave passes. Patients with delayed or cancelled surgeries and procedures during the Omicron wave will force healthcare workers to rush and catch-up, and that will bring a new wave of stresses for those staff members, including nurses.
Preocanin isn’t expecting the world from Premier Ford next week, but she is expecting forward momentum.
“The fact that he committed to meeting with us next week was a hopeful sign for us, and if he comes back with a strategy on how to retain nurses that would be a great thing,” she said. “Right now, we’re just going with the hope that he heard us loud and clear. We need action and we deserve action. We deserve respect.”