https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2022/02/02/ontarios-nursing-shortage-is-worse-than-ever-how-did-we-get-here.html

It’s been a crisis long in the making. Now, as we head into the third year of a global pandemic, Ontario’s nurses are barely holding on.

Across Canada, nurses are leaving their jobs in droves, citing burnout, inadequate pay, dangerous conditions and more. With COVID cases anticipated to climb as Ontario reopens, Premier Doug Ford is set to sit down with Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) president Cathryn Hoy Thursday to discuss solutions.

“We entered the pandemic short on nurses to begin with,” Hoy told the Star Wednesday. “We have been telling the government that for years… Now, a pandemic has enhanced it.”

How many nurses are there?

In 2020, Ontario had the fewest nurses per capita in all of Canada. The national average was 814 nurses per 100,000 people; Ontario had 665. So heading into the pandemic, Ontario had nearly 98,000 nurses in 2020, about 22,000 less than the national average when scaled with population.

Even pre-pandemic, a survey found 60 per cent of nurses said they would quit their jobs in the next year. Of those, a quarter said they were leaving the profession altogether.

Now, chronic underfunding and an aging workforce means job cuts are ramping up —nurses are retiring or quitting and they’re not being replaced. In 2019, Hoy counted 332 cuts. In 2020, that number climbed to 412.

It doesn’t help that nearly a third of all of Canada’s registered nurses are over 50 and an increasing number of them are retiring early.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said the province is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into introducing thousands of nurses by the end of the year. However, Hoy argues nurses need better pay for long-term retention.

How much are nurses paid?

According to the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU), Ontario’s nurses made between $33.90 and $47.69 an hour in 2021. Of Canada’s provinces, Ontario has the fourth-lowest minimum hourly rate, not accounting for cost of living.

The provincial pay system got a makeover after Bill 124 passed in 2019, which capped wage increases for a million public sector workers, including nurses, to one per cent per year.

In contrast, Canada’s annual inflation rate hit a 30-year high at the end of 2021, reaching 4.8 per cent — the highest since September 1991, in addition to rising rent and grocery prices.

A spokesperson for the President of the Treasury Board noted that nurses will get wage increases as they move up in seniority, although Bill 124 will affect the overall pay grid.

“We acted swiftly to ensure our health care workers were recognized for their work through programs like pandemic pay,” they said.

While the pay issue has squeezed some from the profession, the issue runs deeper, said Hoy.

“It’s about respect,” she said. Coupled with overwork from making up for a dwindling workforce, verbal and physical abuse from patients and the risk of catching and spreading COVID, a feeling the government doesn’t care about nurses could be the final straw for many, Hoy said.

Burnt out

Numerous studies have shown the mental toll of the pandemic on health care workers.

“We weren’t built to experience the number of deaths that we’re seeing,” said Hoy. “We need better mental support.”

Even before the pandemic, a CFNU report found 48 per cent of nurses screened positive for a mental illness, and more than 20 per cent surveyed suffered from PTSD. More recently, a 2021 Statistics Canada survey found 70 per cent of health care workers’ mental health worsened over the pandemic.

In the latter survey, 96 per cent of nurses pointed to workplace demands as the cause of their worsening mental health.

“(Nurses) have gone on to lesser paying jobs because the workload has gotten far, far ridiculous” because of the worker shortage, Hoy said. Nurses in her union were sometimes stuck treating up to 30 patients by themselves.

“How are you going to properly take care of 30 patients?” said Hoy.

Additionally, with some nurses still having issues securing proper PPE, the anxiety over contracting or spreading COVID to one’s patients or loved ones is another burden to bear.

What’s the solution?

First on the agenda is scrapping Bill 124, Hoy said.

“(Doug Ford) has to recognize that nurses are a valuable part of health care. He needs to make an offering to them to show them that (he appreciates them),” she said.

She also hopes for more full-time positions, regular hours and psychological supports. As interest in nursing is at a high, universities need the funding to accommodate and properly train new students.

Meanwhile, the province has announced multiple initiatives to battle the shortage, including investing $342 million as part of Ontario’s fall economic statement to add “over 5,000 new and upskilled registered nurses and registered practical nurses,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told the Star.

“If (Ford) does something for the nurses, it’s not only for the nurses. It’s for the people of Ontario. Because at some point in all of our lives, health care will touch you personally,” said Hoy.

“And without nurses, there is no health care.”

Kevin Jiang is a Toronto-based digital producer for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @crudelykevin