The Quebec government has announced it will provide nurses with financial bonuses of up to $18,000 as part of its emergency plan to fix the staffing crisis in the province's health-care network.
Bonuses of $15,000 will go to full-time nurses and part-time nurses in the public system who are willing to work full-time, and nurses who have quit will get $12,000 if they come back, Premier François Legault announced Thursday afternoon. Nurses in regions particularly hard hit by the pandemic could receive bonuses of $18,000.
He said the plan would cost close to $1 billion, but that the government had to offer financial incentives as thousands of exhausted workers fled the system during the pandemic.
"Nurses have taken care of us for a long time. It's time we take care of them," Legault said.
Health Minister Christian Dubé said only 60 per cent of nurses in the public system work full-time, adding that this is "not enough."
He hopes the incentives will convince an extra 15 per cent to work full time and attract about 4,300 nurses back into the system.
Dubé said having more nurses working would improve schedules and significantly reduce forced overtime, which became a common practice during the pandemic.
The government also hopes to reduce the widespread use of private temp agency workers.
"The public network has to be the better place to work, not these agencies," Legault said.
Province also hiring administrative assistants
Legault also announced that the government will hire 3,000 administrative workers to assist nurses with any bureaucratic duties, allowing them to focus on caring for patients. He said nurses estimate they spend up to 30 per cent of their time filling out paperwork.
The administrative staff will be trained over the coming months and are expected to be ready by the spring.
Nurses in five Quebec regions where the situation is particularly dire — including the Outaouais, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, the North Shore, Northern Quebec and the Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine — would receive an additional bonus of $3,000, meaning they could get as much as $18,000.
Legault said the Outaouais and Abitibi-Témiscamingue regions, which are near the Ontario border, had lost nurses to the neighbouring province due to bonuses of about $10,000 it had offered them.
The province could lose even more workers as of Oct. 15, which is the deadline for all Quebec health-care workers in both the public and private networks, to be fully vaccinated.
Dubé said 7,700 workers in the public system still don't have both vaccine doses, but he's hopeful a number of them will get them before the deadline. He's asked health board managers to come up with staffing plans to be implemented after that date.
In recent months, several hospital ERs in the province have been forced to close temporarily, curtail hours or are operating at more than 200 per cent capacity due to a lack of personnel since the beginning of the pandemic, as nurses decry how dismal working conditions have become.
In July, doctors for another health board, the CIUSSS de l'Est-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, penned an open letter to Quebec's Health Ministry, warning that emergency room services could break down to due staffing shortages caused by pandemic working conditions.
According to Quebec's Order of Nurses, about 20 per cent more nurses are working for private agencies this year, suggesting hundreds have left the public sector since the start of the pandemic.
Plan doesn't address working conditions: opposition
One nurse, who CBC agreed not to name because she is not authorized to speak to media, said the announcement will do nothing for her.
The woman works part-time as an emergency room nurse on the night shift, but says she cannot afford to take on full-time work overnight because she is a single mother.
"I'm penalized either way," she said, explaining that part-time nurses expect that they will still be forced to work overtime.
Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade criticized the measures for not abolishing forced overtime and decreasing the load of patients each nurse is mandated to care for.
"This is typical of the [Coalition Avenir Québec] government, where they wait until things get seriously bad to act," she said.
"What's more, this plan does not truly address working conditions."
'Bridge' to new collective agreement
Dubé, the health minister, defended the plan, saying it's a short-term response to the crisis and a bridge until a new collective agreement for nurses is implemented in the coming year.
The collective agreement was voted on and accepted by 76,000 nurse union members in early August.
The agreement includes a one per cent salary raise, with bonuses for night, evening and weekend shifts, as well as the creation of 1,500 full-time positions — 1,000 in long-term care homes and 500 in surgery and medicine departments at facilities such as hospitals that are open 24/7.
Last weekend, Dubé touted a "mammoth" health-care bill he wants to table in the fall that would reform several areas of the network.
Dubé hasn't given specifics about what would be in the bill, but has said it would include ways of gathering better data about the system to help make it more efficient.
He has also hinted the bill would address a shortage of family doctors in the province.