Quebec nurses relieved government seems ready to back down on doubling their workload

Quebec health minister Christian Dubé (right), alongside Quebec Order of Nurses president Luc Mathieu, speaking Monday at the order's annual general meeting, acknowledged that a measure to force most part-time nurses to work overtime had not worked out as well as he'd hoped. (Quebec Order of Nurses - image credit)
Quebec health minister Christian Dubé (right), alongside Quebec Order of Nurses president Luc Mathieu, speaking Monday at the order's annual general meeting, acknowledged that a measure to force most part-time nurses to work overtime had not worked out as well as he'd hoped. (Quebec Order of Nurses - image credit)

Some nurses who were forced to double their workload earlier this year as part of the CAQ government's health-care strategy were surprised to hear Health Minister Christian Dubé admit on Monday that the plan hadn't worked out as well as he'd hoped.

The minister said he is now looking at bringing back more flexible schedules.

"I find it pretty, I don't know, ironic a bit that they changed their mindset. I was a bit surprised," nurse Marie-Pier L'Ecuyer told CBC in an interview Tuesday.

"I'm happy that they've come around to it. It makes me feel a bit less crazy to think that it was, like, unreasonable of them," another nurse, Garrett Johnson, said.

Both L'Ecuyer and Johnson work as nurses at an institution in the West-Central Montreal health agency.

They were two of several nurses CBC spoke to last spring who were disappointed when a measure introduced in their new collective agreement meant they could be forced to work full time.

L'Ecuyer and Johnson chose to work part time because they're also part-time students. Other part-time nurses CBC spoke to at the time were raising young children. Some were concerned about their health.

CBC News
CBC News

All felt betrayed when the new deal meant they were forced to work at least 14 shifts over a 28-day period, effectively doubling their workload.

Nurses over 55 or nurses studying full time were exempt.

Johnson was lucky. His employer was sympathetic and allowed him an academic exemption to continue working part time. But L'Ecuyer was forced to double her workload while continuing her studies.

She's currently pursuing a master's degree in law and says the increased workload has been difficult.

"It's very draining, physically and mentally," she said.

"I'm very fatigued and have less energy for my personal life. Simple things such as cooking or laundry, I skip it or just say 'I'm going to do it tomorrow.' I'm way too tired for that," she said.

Now she feels a mix of relief and exasperation that the government seems to be flip-flopping.

Health minister: 'not up to our expectations'

The nurses union, the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), and the government justified the measure at the time saying most nurses welcomed the chance to move from part-time to full-time hours.

They said the goal was to reduce forced overtime and the health-care system's reliance on private agencies.

They said only a few nurses were reluctant to increase their hours.

But two nurses CBC spoke to last spring quit rather than be forced to work full time, and several others said they were considering leaving the public system because of the new measure.

Monday, during a question-and-answer session with nurses at the Quebec Order of Nurses' annual general meeting, Dubé acknowledged that the measure had fallen short.

"It gave results that I would say were ok but perhaps not up to our expectations," Dubé said.

"Part time versus full time, I know it's a major major issue," he said.

"We have to take a step back and say what people are asking for on the ground is also part-time positions," Dubé said.

Dubé acknowledged any change would likely have to be part of the next round of negotiations with the nurses' union, but he said he has "very, very much heard" the message from nurses who want more flexibility.

Cautious optimism

L'Ecuyer was encouraged to hear the minister's openness to more flexible scheduling, but she said she doubts it will actually happen

CBC
CBC

"It's just words for me right now. There's no actual action that we're taking," L'Ecuyer said

"I truly hope they'll change the way scheduling is done for nurses to have better mental and physical lifestyles," L'Ecuyer said.

L'Ecuyer recently started working as a teaching assistant and is hoping that, between that and her studies, her employer will allow her to reduce her shifts back to part time.

Johnson is reapplying for his academic exemption for the next semester, and he says even once he's finished studying, he'd like to continue working part time.

"I value my freedom and my mental health more than I value just having like a little bit more money," Johnson said.