Nurses. We say they’re our heroes, but is that how we treat them? Through the course of the pandemic, many politicians, activists, and nursing representatives have said we don’t treat them like heroes, and that responsibility has been thrown at the feet of the Ontario government. So on Monday, the health minister literally raised the ante by $5,000, which will be made available to Ontario’s nurses if they stay in the nursing business.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic nurses have stayed on the front lines with remarkable dedication and selflessness as they care for our sick and most vulnerable Ontarians, and we know that a strong nursing workforce is crucial to supporting the province’s recovery in the months and years ahead,” said Health Minister Christine Elliott in a statement.
The $5,000 is being phrased as a “temporary retention payment”, which will go to eligible full-time nurses in hospitals, long-term care and retirement homes, home and community care, primary care, mental health and addictions, emergency services, and corrections, as well as range of other community based and developmental services including youth justice. Eligible part-time and casual nursing staff will also be able to get a prorated payment of $5,000.
The payment will be made by employers in two instalments.
“As we continue to build up our nursing workforce, this investment will support the nurses we currently have so that Ontarians continue to have access to the care they need during the COVID-19 pandemic and into the future,” Elliott added.
There was a wide variety of reaction from the labour organizations that represent nurses. Some called it a positive step, but noted that it was a move that came up short in terms of supporting all healthcare workers throughout the system.
“Ontario’s front line nurses deserve to be recognized for their strength and resilience throughout this pandemic and this announcement is welcome,” said Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/SEFPO) president “Smokey” Thomas in a statement. “However there are other job categories that need similar attention and they can’t be left out.”
“Recruitment and retention is a major problem not only in nursing, but in many other fields in our health care system,” added OPSEU’s chair of the Health Care Divisional Council (HCDC), Jill McIllwraith. “Workers in labs, pharmacies, and radiation technology, to name just a few, have been fighting burn out for years. We need a strong, overarching plan to fix these staffing issues as soon as possible.”
There was a recurring them in the reaction from nurses’ unions about where the government announcement comes up short, and if you’ve been following the labour debate in the healthcare sector it should come as no surprise where the sticking point is.
“If the Premier is serious about bolstering our health workforce, he needs to repeal Bill 124 immediately – no more excuses,” said Cathryn Hoy, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association. “Nurses across the province are angry at once again being thrown crumbs by this government, instead of meaningful solutions to the health staffing crisis. Premier Ford’s exclusionary bonus doesn’t begin to address the issues fuelling Ontario’s health workforce crisis and hurting patient care.”
“Almost every health care worker in the province continues to work under emergency orders that supersede their rights under their collective agreement, with no end in sight. They can be subjected to schedule changes, cancelled vacation and reassignment at a moment’s notice,” said Katha Fortier, assistant to the national president of Unifor. “Bill 124 and temporary bonuses for some, do nothing for the morale of these dedicated workers who make up a significant part of the team that provides great health care every single day.”
“What health care workers want is to be able to bargain wages that reflect their contribution and the significant inflation they are facing. They would like to be able to bargain psychological supports. None of this is possible because of Bill 124,” added Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions under CUPE.
“Ad hoc gestures like one time retention bonuses don’t raise the base rates and aren’t pensionable. They don’t apply to everyone and leave all of the other health care workers feeling unvalued. It’s time for the government to stop patronizing health care workers and let them bargain,” Hurley added.
Reaction from the sector was also echoed by Ontario’s opposition leaders.
“There are so few nurses on every shift, they’re always run off their feet. Doug Ford must revoke his low-wage policy, Bill 124, immediately and show nurses the respect they deserve,” said Official Opposition leader Andrea Horwath. “Today’s announcement by the Ford government is nowhere near what nurses deserve. It’s an insult that Doug Ford is turning a retention bonus into an election gimmick.”
“Doug Ford can’t spend years attacking Nurses, capping their pay, and turning his back on them when things got tough, then expect a free pass by handing out a one-time cheque right before an election” added Liberal leader Steven Del Duca. “Failed Conservative leadership has left the nursing profession, including in home care and long-term care, bleeding staff even as we continue to see glaring problems with hospital and long-term care capacity due to staffing shortages.”
Guelph MPP and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner address the broader issues of labour in healthcare just a few weeks ago in the legislature.
“The healthcare system is hanging on by a thread. Nurses are leaving the profession because of poor working conditions. I’m calling on the Premier to do the right thing, show nurses the respect they deserve, and repeal Bill 124 immediately,” Schreiner said. “It is ridiculous that the government is still attacking nurses with legislation that caps their compensation and suppresses their right to collective bargaining.”