Health-care job vacancies rise as contract talks loom, union says

Diagnostic imaging is one of the work categories included in the bargaining unit that represents highly skilled health-care workers. (Laura Meader/CBC - image credit)
Diagnostic imaging is one of the work categories included in the bargaining unit that represents highly skilled health-care workers. (Laura Meader/CBC - image credit)

Vacancy rates for health-care professionals in Nova Scotia have increased by almost 200 per cent since 2019, according to data released by the province's largest union.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union says that translates to almost 1,100 vacant full-time equivalent positions across the province.

"When we think of health care, a lot of people think of doctors and nurses," Hugh Gillis, the NSGEU first vice-president, said in an interview on Wednesday.

"But there's [many] more people behind the scenes working. So it takes a whole team and we really have to place importance on these professionals that assist each and every day."

The vacancies in question are part of the health-care bargaining unit, which includes fields such as diagnostic imaging and laboratory; respiratory; pharmacy; physical therapy; mental health and addictions; cancer therapy; prosthetics; anesthesia; hearing and speech; and community health.

Gillis said many of the jobs include people who operate hospital equipment, administer and process tests and perform a variety of other functions.

Officials with Nova Scotia Health and the provincial government agree that there is work to do to fill vacant positions and they say work continues to do that. They note that some of the current vacancies exist because new posts were created to improve access to health-care services as patient demographics and needs change.

"This has meant creating several hundred new employment opportunities that initially show as vacant positions," Nova Scotia Health spokesperson Brendan Elliott said in an email.

"These new positions need to be filled, along with current positions that become vacant."

Elliott said Nova Scotia Health has added more than 1,300 new positions for highly skilled health-care professionals since 2019. The provincial health authority also employs almost 700 more skilled workers than it did in 2019, he said.

A spokesperson for the province's Office of Healthcare Professionals Recruitment said addressing workforce shortages includes efforts such as training more people at colleges and universities and adding new professions, such as physician assistants and new mental health clinicians, to the system.

"We are taking a comprehensive and coordinated approach to health workforce development — one that includes many partners and a range of initiatives related to recruitment, retention, training and education and system redesign," Sarah Levy MacLeod said in an email.

Gillis was frank when asked about what it would take to reduce the vacancies.

The bargaining unit that represents the workers in question is expected to begin contract talks in the coming months. Gillis said a major issue will be money.

Some roles are difficult to fill, he said, because the salaries are no longer competitive. Registered respiratory therapists, for example, make $5 an hour less here than they do in P.E.I., said Gillis.

He said he raised the issue during a meeting on Wednesday that included representatives from a variety of health care organizations and Premier Tim Houston.

"I think the government realizes that there are huge vacancies and they realize that they have to work with the unions to solve some of these vacancies," said Gillis.

Elliott said the health authority officials are optimistic about talks with union representatives.