Overworked nurses accuse Alberta Health Services of hiring freeze

Nurses are accusing Alberta's health board of imposing a hiring freeze when hospitals are understaffed, worrying new grads who say they might have to leave the province to find work.
Nurses graduating from Mount Royal College on Friday say they are worried about finding a job in Alberta. ((CBC))

Nurses are accusing Alberta's health board of imposing a hiring freeze when hospitals are understaffed, worrying new grads who say they might have to leave the province to find work.

Diane Lantz — a spokeswoman with United Nurses of Alberta who works at the Peter Lougheed hospital in Calgary — said nurses are being denied vacation and time off for professional upgrading, and are working 16-hour days, yet the health authority doesn't seem to be hiring.

The union has filed a grievance with the health authority for not posting job vacancies, thus forcing nurses to work overtime and without time off.

"There is a nurse shortage, definitely, we still have not enough nurses for too many patients," Lantz said. "The extras are certainly not getting done. It's basic care …You are running from the moment you get on to the moment you leave."

Mark Kastner, spokesman for Alberta Health Services, insists there's no hiring freeze although he said the rate of hiring has slowed in recent months.

The need to hire more nurses has been reduced by trends that have seen less job turnover and more part-time nurses opting to take full-time hours, he said. Kastner said although overtime costs have soared in the past, the amount of overtime being paid to nurses is actually decreasing at this point.

Anxious nursing grads

At a graduation ceremony for 200 nurses from Calgary's Mount Royal College on Friday, some students said they were anxious about finding work.

"It's scary. I had held off applying for anything because I wanted to work casual but I kind of got in a little bit of trouble there because now there's not so many shifts," said Ashley Lenius.

Fellow grad Darryl Laplante said he is considering moving out of the province to get work.

"I personally have a mortgage to pay and bills to pay," he said. "We are going to go where there is jobs, and unfortunately [for] Alberta, if there are no jobs here, then we do have to search elsewhere."

Few job postings

In March, the regulatory body for nurses in Alberta determined that the province was short nearly 1,500 nurses, said Lantz. Her hospital alone was short 87 registered nurses, yet until a few new posting went up late Thursday, she hadn't seen a job posting for nurses since May 21.

As the local union representative, Lantz said she has fielded a lot of questions and concerns from nurses, who are especially concerned that registered nurses (RNs) will be replaced by licensed practical nurses (LPNs), who have less training.

"Is it true we're going to be getting our pink slips in July? And is it true that they are going to be replacing all the RNs with LPNs? [That] is what I am hearing," Lantz said.

But Lantz said she doesn't know what to tell them because Alberta Health Services has not detailed its plans.

The union obtained a May 5 memo from Alberta Health Services president Stephen Duckett to the health authority's executive committee. 

"It is clear that we need to manage our recruitment/staffing closely," Duckett wrote. "While we do not yet fully know the extent of our budget challenge, we do know that we will not be able to address it without some impact on staffing."

All new postings have to be approved by a member of the executive committee and should be "necessary in meeting the minimum core responsibilities for your area," said the memo.

With files from The Canadian Press