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Where did all the nurses go?

John Bell

November 4, 2021

Doug Ford says he does not want to impose vaccine mandates on healthcare workers for fear that many will quit. The fact is that far more have already quit because of the rotten pay and work conditions his government has already imposed on their profession.

Politicians of all stripes have heaped praise on nurses throughout the pandemic emergency. But talk is cheap. 

In Alberta the Kenney UCP government tried to claw back nurses’ wages by up to 5%. Popular opposition, along with all his other public health disasters, forced him to backtrack. But a wage freeze remains, and in a period of inflation that amounts to a rolling pay cut. As a result, nurses are leaving the profession (and some are quitting the province entirely).

In Ontario Doug Ford’s Tories used Bill 124, the COVID emergency bill, to scrap nurses’ contracts and put a cap on wages. After months of stress, overwork and loss of control over work conditions, nurses are leaving the profession in droves.

According to CUPE rep Mike Hurley, up to 87% of nurses say they may quit after the pandemic because of the pay freeze, the risk of violence they face on the job, the chronic lack of quality PPE, and understaffing.

Across the country, nursing has been a down-graded profession. Jobs with regular, predictable schedules are rare. Exhausting, long shifts push nurses to the limit. Forced overtime is used to fill the gaps.

A personal aside: I require regular hospital visits for dialysis to deal with kidney failure. I have been going to Toronto’s biggest hospital 3 times a week for almost 2 years. During that time the turnover of nurses is shocking. Every week I witness goodbye parties as experienced professionals leave. I see supervisors openly begging and badgering nurses to take additional shifts. I am attended by fresh faces literally days out of college, being hastily trained on the job by other nurses. The tension and exhaustion is palpable.

Politicians like Kenney and Ford spread half-truths and misinformation. Kenney’s propaganda machine tried to portray nurses as greedy and overpaid.  They neglect to mention that the few nurses that earned more than $100,000 did so because of the overtime they were forced to work.

Ford brags he is creating positions for 1000s of new healthcare workers and nurses. He doesn’t mention that experienced, highly educated nursing specialists are being replaced by grads from community college and private school programs that offer 6-weeks of on-line instructions. These so-called “micro diplomas” crank out people with “micro credentials”. 

This a concerted stealth attack on public health care. It is a way to turn a respected, good-paying, socially productive profession into minimum wage work without pensions or benefits. If Tory governments cannot abolish and privatize public healthcare head on, they are content to hollow it out through legislation like Bill 124.

Nurses fight back

Most enter the nursing profession because they want to help people in need. And especially in the midst of a public health emergency it is difficult for them to take collective action to defend their jobs. But the provocations from employers and governments have become so extreme that nurses are saying “No more!”

Nurses in Quebec staged a work to rule in protest over forced, mandatory overtime.  One spokesperson for nurses told the CBC: “We never know what time we are going to leave work. It has an impact on our families, it has an impact on the overall [health] network.... There's no more patience. It's over.”

In Alberta rallies by nurses and health workers led the opposition to Kenney’s disastrous health care decisions.

And in Ontario, nurses have begun to march and protest to defend their jobs and our healthcare.

Ford and his government refuse to mandate vaccinations in healthcare because nurses will quit. This is a lie. Nurses have been quitting in droves, for years, as government cuts and anti-worker laws like Bill 124. Defending our healthcare means fighting Ford, Kenney and their kind on every front. 

If you value your healthcare, now is the time to show solidarity with the workers who are the backbone of our system, our nurses. Good jobs for them means good healthcare for the rest of us.



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