• Robert Routt

Canadian nursing shortage will be worse than anything seen before, experts say

As of this month, Sonja Bernhard will end her 14-year nursing career. A nurse at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton says chronic understaffing, limited resources, constant overtime and low pay, combined with the rate of COVID-19 Omicron variant, led her to take a part-time position, which she will complement with another job that pays $6 less per hour. The profession needs her now more than ever, but she cannot continue working under such "dangerous" conditions. “I’m tired, done, finished, mentally checked out. I am 100 per cent burnt out,” Bernhard says. Activists for the nursing profession are warning of an impending "public health crisis" as burnt-out workers like Bernhard consider resigning from their profession or leaving altogether, due to surging rates of Omicron across the country that stretch already understaffed staff to the breaking point.

If you combine these things, you get a recipe for burnout that is far beyond anything we have ever experienced before. The result will be significant numbers of people leaving," says Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

Nurses are pushed to their breaking point by Omicron

In response to the outbreak of Omicron, Ontario Premier Doug Ford this week announced several new public health measures, including moving schools online and closing restaurants and gyms. These measures were also limited to limiting capacity. In the Greater Toronto Area, two hospitals have implemented a "code orange" order due to a rise in COVID-19 patients and staff shortages, which will see some staff reassigned and some patients transferred to other hospitals.

2 081 Ontarians are in the hospital and 288 are in the intensive care unit with COVID-19 as of Wednesday. With 11,582 confirmed positive cases on Monday, the province reported another day of rising numbers. However, the total is not indicative of actual infections because testing has been limited to those at high risk. The nursing shortage in Canada predates the pandemic, but workers and experts say the past two years have exacerbated issues that have been neglected, including an aging workforce, poor salaries, and the pull of higher-paying international jobs. Ontario had the lowest number of registered nurses (RNs) per capita in the country in 2020, with 665 per 100,000 people. Canada's average is 814. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and researchers from the University of Regina, 83 percent of nurses said their institution's core health-care staff was not sufficient to meet patient needs.

That's it, we're done.

Her defining moment came when Bernhard realized she could no longer work full-time. Her colleague, a close friend, was attacked at work. Bernhard says the frequency of assaults and violent patients had been growing over the past two years, but with little protection and mental health support provided to staff working in such environments, this was the straw that broke the camel's back. The nurse says nurses are routinely dealing with aggressive patients, assaults, and being placed in wards where they have no experience or training, without any support.

Bernhard says the Ontario government's limit on wage increases for public sector employees - known as Bill 124 - served as further salt in the wound. Bernhard earned $31.26 per hour as a full-time nurse, which equals about $65,000 per year at 40 hours per week.

As a part-time employee, Bernhard will work 24 hours weekly and supplement that income with part-time work as a nursing instructor at a community college, making $25.64 an hour. A spokesperson for the Ontario government responded that the government had already made "quick" moves to introduce pandemic pay during the Omicron surge.

Furthermore, they said they "took swift action" to impose restrictions this week, including cancelling non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries, to "blunt transmissions and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed." When asked about Bill 124, the spokesperson said it was "inaccurate" to suggest that wages were capped at one per cent, because employees could still receive salary increases based on seniority, performance, or increased qualifications.

"Our government is grateful for the contribution of Ontario's health-care workers and the role they played in providing timely, safe and equitable access to high-quality care to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic," according to the spokesperson.

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