Health care crisis
Staffing situation getting worse, not better

Richard Gleeson and Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

NNSL (Nov 02/98) - The heath care situation in Nunavut is quickly moving from difficult to desperate.

The Baffin Regional Hospital was designed to be staffed by 34 nurses and is operating with only 25, according to a press release issued by the Baffin Regional Health and Social Services Board.
Bargaining Catch-22

The department charged with delivering adequate health care says it is operating with one hand tied behind its back in trying to address the problem of keeping health care staff in the North.

"Zero," was Health and Social Services Minister Kelvin Ng's response when asked how much control he has over what nurses in the North are paid.

Ng said the Financial Management Board Secretariat is handling negotiation of the new contract, adding that collective bargaining is not a practical solution to the problem.

"The problem is that when your negotiating, it's across the board," said Ng. "You can't say nurses get a 20 per cent increase, social workers get five per cent and a janitor gets two per cent. That's the dilemma we're stuck in."

Union of Northern Workers research and public affairs officer Ben McDonald said that's not the case.

"It's happened before, where they've recognized they can't recruit people at the rate they've been paying, so they've accommodated the market reality."

McDonald said the union has accepted such changes for corrections workers, computer technicians and property managers.

"We've got an obligation to represent the nurses as much as any other group and, if the nurses are being underpaid by market standards, then it's the union's obligation to make sure that doesn't continue.

"We're not going to use the nurses as cannon fodder for the rest of the members."

Ng said the government's current pay equity proposal provides for salary increases for nurses ranging from $8,000-$12,000 per year.

If a resolution of the pay equity dispute is the key to solving the problem, it won't be solved anytime soon.

At this time, it appears it will be up to a Canadian Human Rights tribunal to resolve the problem, a route that will take years to complete.

As a result of the shortage, the hospital has reduced the number of beds it has available, from 34 to 18, said director of hospital services Judy Watts.

"Staff morale here is very low," said Dianne Anthony, a nurse at the Baffin hospital. "The people who are positive are not positive any more. That directly impacts nursing care."

Anthony finished up a three-month term with the hospital last week. She has been working at the Iqaluit hospital for the past five summers, coming North from Newfoundland with her husband, who works in the construction industry.

Short-term hires are increasingly becoming the only way the Baffin Regional Health and Social Services Board can fill vacant positions, said Doug Workman, president of the newly-founded Nunavut Employees Union.

"(The board) would be happy to get nurses to stay for one-year terms, but they're not even getting that," said Workman. "They're getting people to stay for three months."

The situation in Iqaluit reflects what's going on in health centres throughout the NWT, said Workman. Shortages have a proportionately higher impact on nurses working in health centres. Workman said it is not uncommon to see centres which should be staffed by four nurses getting by with two.

According to the Department of Health and Social Services' most recent statistics, as of Sept. 1 this year, 25 per cent of the nursing positions at Nunavut community health centres were vacant.

"People are burning out and they're leaving," said Workman. "It's not worth it for them to stay."

The problem is quite simple -- benefit cuts and a wage rollback in the last contract with the territorial government have made nursing in the North a break-even proposition at best. And, it's a problem that's getting worse rather than better, particularly in Iqaluit where a housing shortage is causing rents to soar.

Nurses' salaries at the Baffin hospital start at $45,078 and top out at $52,296.

The difficulty of recruiting is compounded by a shortage of nurses in the south.

"It's been a double headache for us in that our own nurses are being recruited away, so, we have a retention problem and, at the same time, we're having difficulty replacing them," said Watts.

"We have offered positions in the past few weeks to at least four nurses and they've all turned us down based on the salary and housing costs," said Watts.

Baffin Regional Health and Social Services Board chairman Dennis Patterson said the region's ability to attract nurses is limited by the terms of the last collective bargaining agreement with the GNWT, signed in 1996.

The union and government are currently negotiating a new collective agreement.

"Ultimate responsibility lies with the GNWT and the union because they are discussing the issues that are of concern to us," said Patterson. "We're not party to these negotiations, but they very much affect us."

Workman, part of the union bargaining committee, gave an unequivocal "No" when asked if government negotiators have been acknowledging the connection between wages and benefits and the health care crisis in Nunavut.

"The government does not care about the long- term development of health and social services," he said.