Alberta is working with out-of-province staffing agencies to bring in contract nurses, as hospitals contend with staff shortages and full beds due to the surging fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), the union representing more than 30,000 nurses in the province, says it was notified on Friday by Alberta Health Services (AHS) that the province plans to immediately bring in contractors to address staffing shortages.
AHS is working with Toronto-based Greenstaff Medical Canada, Vancouver's Brylu Staffing and Northern Nursing Solutions of Airdrie, Alta., the nurses' union said in a news release.
As of Friday, 515 COVID-19 patients were in Alberta hospitals, including 118 in intensive care beds. More than 20 municipalities across the province had reductions in acute care beds, many due to staffing shortages.
The province's ICUs were at 95 per cent capacity, and as many as 60 per cent of scheduled surgeries were being postponed in some areas.
AHS said the move to hire contract nurses from staffing agencies is a "last resort."
"We are doing all we can to open additional capacity. However, our biggest challenge right now is finding available health-care workers to staff those surge beds," AHS confirmed in an emailed statement. "This critical staffing challenge is limiting our ability to open additional beds, which in turn is placing strain on our ability to care for patients."
Provincial modelling has suggested that up to 700 people could be in hospital with COVID-19 by the end of this month.
"This is a last resort, as our local supply of nurses is close to being exhausted," AHS said.
Nurses are exhausted, union says
Two weeks ago, AHS invoked emergency work rules for nurses, which could force them to work mandatory overtime or cancel time off to address staffing gaps.
David Harrigan, UNA's director of labour relations, said nurses are exhausted.
"It's not unusual to have [hospitals] over capacity and understaffed. You know, in some ways I can see why AHS has to bring in contractors because it is a real crisis," he told CBC News. "But the answer is to sit down and say ... how can we retain employees instead of abusing current employees?"
AHS is also withdrawing a labour relations board complaint it had made against the UNA, the union said. The complaint alleged that the union was bargaining in bad faith by publicly stating that AHS was discussing hiring registered nurses with third-party recruiters at higher rates than those paid under the collective agreement.
"They publicly accused UNA of being dishonest, because we said that they were in discussions with contract nurses. And then on Friday ... they wrote to us that, in fact, they are in discussions," Harrigan said.
A job posting from Greenstaff Medical Canada on Indeed.com, posted one month ago, said it was urgently hiring for casual RN positions in Edmonton, with wages starting at $75 per hour. The top rate an RN can make in Alberta right now is $48 per hour.
"Nurses have been working 16 hours a day, overworked, for 16 months. Their employer is saying to them, 'Thanks a lot. By the way, we're going to cut your wages.' And now they turn around and bring in people that they will pay $55 to $75 an hour," Harrigan said. "There's just no better way to show the public and the nurses that they have zero respect for health care."
The UNA said that AHS has now committed to disclosing when it reaches a contract with any staffing agencies but that it has not said what rate it expects to pay the contract nurses.
The union is currently calling for a two per cent wage increase, saying nurses haven't received a raise in five years; AHS has proposed a three per cent salary rollback.