Front-line Hospital Workers Say They Feel Betrayed by the Province

As the pandemic is beginning to wind down, nurses and other front-line hospital workers say they are feeling demoralized.Sonja Bernhard used to sit in her car and cry at the end of a shift at the Hamilton long-term care home where she had been deployed to help with the pandemic. Like other front-line health workers, the registered practical nurse found working during the pandemic physically and emotionally gruelling. She continues to deal with fallout from it.

Now, as the pandemic is beginning to wind down, nurses and other front-line hospital workers say they are feeling demoralized.

Their focus is Bill 124, the public sector wage restraint bill that passed into law in November 2019, four months before the pandemic began.

The bill limits total wage and benefit increases to one per cent across the public sector. Unions representing hospital workers say it will hit front-line health workers particularly hard. It will not keep up with inflation, nor will it allow for better mental health supports such as psychological counselling to help exhausted and burnt out workers cope with the fallout from the pandemic.

“It is at a point where people are done. They are broken,” said Bernhard.At a time when the province is offering signing bonuses to deal with an acute shortage of nurses, health workers and the unions that represent them say the law will make the shortage worse by driving nurses and others out of the profession in Ontario.

Nurses will leave the profession when this is over, said Sheena Woods, a Thunder Bay registered practical nurse. “They are telling me, once this is over they will find other career paths, and that is terrible for the health-care field. They want better paying jobs.”

Two unions that represent 70,000 Ontario hospital workers — CUPE and SEIU — are joining forces to bargain together, for the first time, under the province’s new wage cap. Negotiations begin next week.

Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU, called the wage cap sexist, saying it excludes front-line workers in male-dominated jobs, including police, firefighters and paramedics. Nurses and personal support workers, who were among the hardest hit during the pandemic, will have their compensation limited.Stewart said the provincial pay bump-up for personal support workers during the pandemic was a recognition that they are paid poorly, but that increase is temporary.

“So many of them have risked their lives and so many are underpaid,” she said. “We are about to enter a second pandemic — a critical shortage of nurses.”

More than 23,000 Ontario health-care workers contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic. Twenty-four died, according to Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

Thousands of part-time hospital workers who became ill with COVID-19 as a result of their jobs did not receive sick pay benefits when they were off recovering.During a news conference Monday, health workers said they and their colleagues are struggling.

“I don’t think I have the right words to describe the roller-coaster of emotions and the mental toll it has taken on all of us,” said Bernhard.

Dave Verch, president of CUPE 4540, which represents 800 health-care workers at the Bruyère Hospital in Ottawa, said many hospital staff are only now realizing they will be subject to wage restraint.

“A lot of people have worked through the pandemic and have an expectation that for their hard work and stress and strain a normal bargaining process would now begin,” he said.

Verch said the legislation will make it harder for Ontario to attract badly needed nurses as many say they plan to leave after the pandemic.“There are already recruiting problems, not only in Ottawa, but across the province. I don’t see how this is going to entice people to come into nursing.”

In a statement, Sebastian Skamski, press secretary for provincial finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, noted that nurses and other public sector employees will continue to receive seniority or performance-based wage increases well above one per cent. Skamski also pushed back against suggestions that the wage restraint targets women.

“Bill 124 applies to over one million people working in Ontario’s public sector, spanning numerous different sub-sectors. Any suggestion that it is discriminatory or targets any demographic group is totally baseless.”

He said the government “is incredibly grateful for the contributions of Ontario’s healthcare workers and the critical role they have played throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemic pay was one way the government recognized that contribution, he said.

Author of the article: Elizabeth Payne | Publishing date: June 15, 2021