QUEBEC – On September 23, Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced the province in undertaking a “small revolution in managing the health network” to address province-wide nursing shortages. With an approximate cost of $1 billion, it involves offering public-sector nurses up to $18,000 in lump sum bonuses to remain in Quebec’s public health sector, for part-time workers to take on full-time hours, or for retired nurses or those who have gone to the private sector to return.
“For several years, we’ve had huge organizational problems in the health network, and these have worsened with the pandemic, like everywhere else in the world,” said Legault.
Nurses working full-time in the public system will receive a $15,000 one-time bonus and those working part-time will get $15,000 if they take on full-time hours. In regions where labour shortages are most critical – Outaouais, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Côte-Nord, Nord-du-Québec and Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine – $18,000 will be given to nurses who take on full-time hours.
Retired nurses or those who have jumped ship to the private sector will receive $12,000 to return to the public system full-time. In the five regions where the situation is critical, this bonus is increased to $15,000.
Some unions criticized the news, claiming money is only one part of the problem and that working conditions, most notably forced overtime, is why many nurses choose to leave Quebec’s public health system. In Ontario, nurses earn about $20,000 more annually for the same job.
In an online post, Legault said the main priority of the “revolution” is to offer nurses and nursing assistants a better work-life balance and stable schedules, but staffing must first be improved to address these issues.
“I know the most important thing for nurses is not money, it’s having a ‘normal’ life. So we are going to do a major reorganization of work. We’ve reached new collective agreements with the unions that will help us do this,” he wrote, noting among other things, administrative officers will be hired to lighten this workload on nurses who can spend up to 30% of their time filling out paperwork. Recruiting nurses from outside of Quebec and accelerating the training of nursing assistants is also on their to-do list.
“With all these measures, we will significantly reduce the use of mandatory overtime and private employment agencies,” he added.
Jane Toller, MRC Pontiac warden, reacted positively to the news, noting an MRC committee has been meeting with regional health authority CISSSO regularly regarding the closure of the Pontiac Community Hospital’s obstetrics department, caused mainly by a lack of nursing staff.
“We’re in direct competition with Ontario where they pay $10 more per hour,” she said. “We thought we could try a pilot [program] to address just the needs of Pontiac, but knowing there’s a collective agreement in the works, the steps taken by the premier are very wise because rather than waiting until next summer to have this ratified, we can move forward with a hiring bonus.”
Pontiac MNA Andre Fortin has long called for equalizing nurses salaries to those in Ontario and said he’s happy to see nurses getting additional funds; “they deserve every cent”. However, he said this attraction and retention method is very short-sighted.
“Already, many nurses and their unions … have denounced that a one-time payment will not convince nurses who have left to return, or part-time nurses to switch to full-time,” he told the Journal, noting there are two things to do to convince nurses to return to Quebec.
“First, put an end date to mandatory overtime. This is why many nurses chose to leave the profession altogether, to head to other provinces or to the agencies. Until government announces a date at which this will cease, it will be hard to convince nurses that working conditions have improved and to return. Second, [annual] salaries are so much better in Ontario that it will be difficult to convince them to return with a one-time lump sum payment,” he added.
Fortin feels for other professionals – lab technicians, social workers and others who are vital to the health system – as they weren’t given anything. “They understandably feel insulted and lied to. Many of these professions are also in serious shortage,” he said.
“I hope government has other, more lasting solutions to put forward (like those mentioned) to ensure services can return without the repetitive closures we’ve seen in recent weeks and months,” he concluded.