Doris Grinspun is the Executive Director of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. Brenda Stade is a Nursing Policy Analyst at RNAO.
For nearly two years, nurses have been at the forefront of Ontario’s tireless struggle with COVID-19. During that time, more than 650,000 people in the province have been tested positive for coronavirus, which has led to more than 10,000 lost lives and many thousands more left to mourn. While they are tirelessly fighting to save the lives of those in their care, nurses have also had to fight to protect themselves and their families.
Meanwhile, they have been working under the wage-limiting legislation – Premier Doug Ford’s Bill 124 – which limits compensation increases for nurses and other public sector employees to a maximum of one per cent for three years. It has caused their real incomes to fall since the legislation was passed in 2019. The bill is deeply unfair and symbolizes what is wrong with the government’s approach to the nursing profession.
And now the Omicron variant, whose rapid spread threatens to overwhelm hospitals again. As resilient as they are and have been during the entire pandemic, registered nurses in emergency rooms, intensive care units and other critical areas have reached their limit.
The length and intensity of the pandemic has hit RNs in Ontario particularly hard. The province went into the pandemic with the lowest number of registered nurses per capita in the country – by a wide margin. The government would have to hire 22,000 RNs just to catch up with the rest of Canada. Exhausted, burnt out and financially punished, RNs leave their jobs, leave the province and in some cases leave the profession.
For some, leaving their jobs means joining the list of nursing agencies and choosing fewer hours of work, higher pay and greater control over their professional and family lives – leaving emergency rooms and intensive care units overwhelmed and lacking RNs. Across the healthcare system, including hospitals, thousands of vacant RN posts remain vacant.
Ontario’s crisis with human resources in nursing comes as no surprise. The shortage of staff, especially in hospitals and nursing homes, has been highlighted again and again for years. The government and employers – including the Ontario Hospital Association – have known this and looked the other way.
Last winter, amid swirling rumors of nurses leaving their jobs, RNAO investigated its membership. That examination painted an even gloomier picture. RNs of all ages plan to leave the workforce at higher rates than before. In particular, it signaled the impending exit of the profession of early-career RNs and the loss of late-career RNs planning to retire earlier. A recent study of nurses, sponsored by RNAO, told the same story of excessive stress, high workload, and little support or respect from employers and government. Both studies draw a straight line between support, respect, and the likelihood of leaving the job or profession.
Amplifying the province’s crisis is a drag on Ontario’s nurse workforce to the south. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be approx 200,000 openings for RNs each year over the next decade to meet the demands of the growing population and address the United States’ own pandemic-induced nursing shortage. Rewards and incentives – such as paid moving expenses, higher wages, clear staff and workload standards, generous vacation packages and training support – are plentiful for Ontario RNs who want to feel valued and start fresh.
We are in the midst of an RN crisis with human resources in Ontario that is deepening daily. On December 9, the legislature went back without taking the one, simple step necessary to change the decades-old course that has led us here – by repealing Bill 124. The way out of a crisis is never easy and the way out of this. one will involve a complex set of retention and recruitment initiatives that include increased baccalaureate (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) places, fast-tracking internationally trained nurses, support for new nurses and more.
But it will not begin until Ontario has a government that sees, values and respects its nurses by compensating them for what they are worth. Today, that message must come with the repeal of Bill 124. We urge Mr Ford to act and avert the collapse of a complete health care system.
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