N.B. government surprised, disappointed by Nova Scotia nurse bonuses

Health Minister Bruce Fitch said there was no notice to New Brunswick about Nova Scotia's announcement to give nurses in the province up to $20,000 in bonuses.  (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Health Minister Bruce Fitch said there was no notice to New Brunswick about Nova Scotia's announcement to give nurses in the province up to $20,000 in bonuses. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

The Higgs government says it was caught by surprise when Nova Scotia announced this week it will give nurses in that province up to $20,000 in bonuses.

Health Minister Bruce Fitch said there was no notice to New Brunswick, despite commitments by all four Atlantic provinces to work together more closely to address health care staffing issues.

"We were surprised [by] that announcement. We usually work closely with our counterparts," Fitch told reporters at the legislature.

"That was a disappointment. I'm not going to say anything different. And not to speak for the premier, but I think he was disappointed as well, because it does put a lot of pressure on the other provinces."

Jeorge Sadi/CBC
Jeorge Sadi/CBC

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston announced Monday that nurses who worked full time in the province last year will get an immediate $10,000 bonus with "no strings attached," plus another $10,000 if they promise to stay on the job until 2026.

"How can we show you, how can we show nurses and health-care professionals the same level of commitment that you show us?" Houston said.

"How can we say thank you? How can we recognize your sacrifice?"

That announcement, worth $330 million, was on Monday, one day before New Brunswick's provincial budget.

That made it too late for the Higgs government to add any similar measure to its spending plan, even if it had wanted to.

"I'm not going to negotiate in the media or on the floor of the legislature," Fitch said.

"There's a whole process for that. But we are making investments in the budget that are going to improve the specific working conditions that we've heard [about] from frontline workers."

Patrick Lacelle/Radio-Canada
Patrick Lacelle/Radio-Canada

The province is offering $10,000 bonuses to new nurses moving to New Brunswick, along with money for relocation expenses.

But there's no bonus for nurses already in the workforce.

New Brunswick Nurses Union first vice-president Maria Richard said it was "a slap in the face" that the budget included no retention incentives, especially in light of Nova Scotia's announcement.

"Nurses in New Brunswick don't care if it's political or it's surprising. They want to feel that this government respects them and knows that they're holding the system together," she said.

Atlantic premiers had agreed to co-operate

Last year the Vitalité health authority told a committee of MLAs that 152 nurses quit their jobs in 2021-22 for reasons other than retirement. They cited workload and a feeling there was a lack of support for them.

The nurses who left had an average age of 34, meaning they might have worked for two or three more decades had they stayed.

Last year the four Atlantic premiers agreed to work on more health-care co-operation, including making it easier for doctors and nurses to move between provinces to work.

"We are one region and there's lots of family ties between them," Houston said at the time. " And so those are the opportunities that I'm looking forward to."

Premier Blaine Higgs said he wouldn't criticize Houston for announcing bonuses "that he felt was in the best interest of Nova Scotians.… I have to respect that."

But he said he believes a more effective way to retain nurses is to improve their working conditions.

"We have to go deeper. We have to understand what nurses and health care workers are going through in the workplace and fix the concerns there," he said.

Guy Leblanc/Radio-Canada file photo
Guy Leblanc/Radio-Canada file photo

Richard said however a better work-life balance for nurses isn't possible without additional nurses available to share the workload.

New Brunswick has had two consecutive large budget surpluses of $777.3 million and $862.2 million.

This year the government is projecting a modest $40.3 surplus.

Higgs suggested a generous Nova Scotia-style bonus program would be too expensive, costing $400 million a year.

"You get into a position where you're going to, every two years, pay a bonus for someone to work another two years? Think about that concept in the scheme of 55,000 employees. That's quite a unique concept, and every New Brunswicker has to pay for it."

Opposition parties believe the province is lowballing its revenue estimates to conceal a larger projected surplus so it can resist pressure to spend more money.

Liberal MLA Rob McKee said the government should do more to encourage nurses to stay.

"It's just another indication that they're not at the table. They're not aggressively pursuing this issue," he said.

Green leader David Coon said a similar bonus for nurses already working would recognize their value and boost their morale.

Fitch said the $29.7 million in new funding for recruitment and retention in Tuesday's budget would allow for more international recruiting trips like a recent one to the Philippines that saw 200 nurses accept offers to work in New Brunswick.

He said that funding, along with $72 million for the two health authorities, and other elements of the $3.6 billion health budget, would improve working conditions for nurses.