More closures likely at Stanton, says union rep, as N.W.T. health minister responds to nurses' letter

Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital in a file photo. The N.W.T.'s health minister responded to a letter from nurses on Monday.   (Sara Minogue/CBC - image credit)
Yellowknife's Stanton Territorial Hospital in a file photo. The N.W.T.'s health minister responded to a letter from nurses on Monday. (Sara Minogue/CBC - image credit)

The president of the local chapter of the union representing government workers at Stanton Territorial Hospital anticipates there will be more closures at the hospital.

On Monday, the Northwest Territories' health authority announced the hospital's obstetrics unit will be temporarily shutting down due to staffing challenges. Tina Drew, the president of Local 11 of the Union of Northern Workers, expects others will follow.

"We will have closures of other departments if we don't start recognizing that people need vacation time," Drew said.

"This is why staff are leaving," she said. "This is why obstetrics staff aren't staying."

The N.W.T., like the rest of the country, has been dealing with a nursing shortage during the pandemic. As of the end of June, the nurse vacancy rate in the N.W.T. was 26.3 per cent.

"I understand it's hard to get locum nurses now. But it's going to get harder if people are not going to stay in their jobs," Drew said.

She pointed to a vacation policy restricting how many people are able to take time off at any given time as the reason the obstetrics unit is closing.

Drew said managers at the hospital have been asking staff to give up some of their vacation time so everyone can get some.

"And that's not fair," she said.

Health minister responds to nurses' demands

A group of nurses recently sent a letter to MLAs with a list of demands, including more compensation, and a return of personal vacation and sick days. The letter explained how staff are burnt out and have not received the same type of compensation nurses in other jurisdictions have been given during the pandemic.

On Monday, Northwest Territories Health Minister Julie Green wrote back, saying she is looking at ways to ensure the territory remains a competitive place to work as a nurse, but did not offer any specifics as to what the territory can do.

Several nurses CBC News spoke to on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals were sceptical, with one suggesting the hospital was at a tipping point. A search of the government of the Northwest Territories' job board finds multiple postings for nursing jobs across several units, including the emergency department, the intensive care unit and obstetrics.

"Your letter reflects the pressure and disproportionate demands that the pandemic has placed on those of you at the frontline of the healthcare system, and the significant impacts you have experienced," Green wrote.

"I also recognize that strains on the NWT nursing workforce existed before the pandemic, and that these have been made worse over the past year and a half."

When it comes to compensation issues, Green said there is no "easy or available mechanism to provide these payments because matters related to compensation are dealt with in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the GNWT and the Union of Northern Workers."

"We do not have a way to break out a group of employees to provide additional compensation without considering all employees through the bargaining process," she wrote.

She encouraged nurses to complete a survey about recruitment and retention, which would help inform the next steps.