More than two years into the pandemic, nurses and other health workers are leaving their jobs and not returning, in part because of Ontario’s wage restraint legislation, Bill 124, front-line workers and union leaders say.
That is contributing to critical staffing shortages at hospitals across the province.
“We are hemorrhaging nurses. We can’t hire them and we can’t keep them,” said Rachel Muir, a nurse at The Ottawa Hospital and local bargaining unit president with the Ontario Nurses Association.
On Tuesday, nurses and other front-line health workers rallied in front of the Civic campus of The Ottawa Hospital calling for the Ontario government to repeal Bill 124, which limits compensation increases to one per cent over three years for all public sector workers in the province, including front-line health workers.
Health workers have long called for the repeal of the legislation. “That would afford nurses and other front-line workers the respect they deserve after everything they have done over the last two years,” said Muir.
The legislation, they say, is contributing to critical — and worsening — staff shortages that are negatively affecting the quality of care across the province, health workers and union officials said. Hospitals are also struggling with high numbers of staff isolating because of COVID-19.
Front-line health workers and union representatives say the global pandemic has exposed existing problems in the health system and Bill 124 has made them worse by driving demoralized and exhausted workers away.
Provincewide, Ontario needs to hire between 22,000 and 30,000 nurses just to reach the national average, said Muir. At The Ottawa Hospital alone, there are about 600 nursing vacancies, she said.
The provincial hospital job vacancy rate has increased from 1.6 per cent at the end of 2015 to 6.3 per cent at the end of 2021, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Over 2020 and 2021, registered nurse vacancies more than doubled and registered practical nurse vacancies more than tripled.
In Ottawa, job vacancies for health-care occupations have gone up from 460 at the beginning of 2015 to 2,845 at the end of 2021 — more than six times.
“There is not a unit in this institution that functions with full staff at any point,” Muir said of The Ottawa Hospital. “There are always at least one or two members short. In bigger units, such as emergency and intensive care, some days they are six, seven, even 10 nurses short. It means long wait times and basic care.”
Protest organizers called for Cameron Love, President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital to ask the province to repeal the legislation.
Lou Burri, president of CUPE 4000 which represents about 4,000 front-line staff at The Ottawa Hospital said his members are “outraged” that Love has not publicly asked the province to kill the legislation.
“Mr. Love knows how detrimental the impact of Bill 124 has been on hospital staff morale who’ve delivered great care to our patients throughout a global crisis. They watch management get wage increases and are frankly appalled at their silence and disrespect,” he said.
CHEO President and CEO Alex Munter has said publicly that Bill 124 has been overtaken by events — especially the pandemic and inflation — and its repeal would make it easier to address staffing shortages in health care. CHEO, like other hospitals, is struggling to hire nurses and other front-line workers.
There has been no sign that the provincial government intends to repeal the legislation, although a Nanos poll commissioned by CUPE suggests there would be public support for such action.
About 81 per cent of respondents in Ottawa and Eastern Ontario who were polled supported a pay increase for all hospital workers. Nearly two-thirds opposed health care workers being limited to a one per cent maximum pay raise, as they are under Bill 124.
Health-care union representatives said the money the province has been putting into hospital beds and buildings in recent months — including in Ottawa — will have little value without enough health workers.
“Unless you have all those staff in place, it is just a bed. That is what is needed to adequately care for the patients of Ontario.”
Tuesday’s protest was one of a series set to take place next month as the Ontario election campaign gets underway.
Both the Ontario NDP and Liberal parties have called for the repeal of Bill 124.