Part-time nurses in Quebec feel betrayed by new contract forcing them to double workload
New collective agreement means nurses who now work 2 days a week will be forced to nearly double that
Nurse Jazzmin Bak was walking home from dropping off her three children at school and daycare last fall when she first heard that the new collective agreement her union reached with the province would force her to double the amount of hours she worked.
"I was devastated, I was pretty much in tears," Bak told CBC in an interview last week.
Bak has worked in the ICU at the Montreal General Hospital for 12 years. When her third child was born two years ago, Bak reduced her hours to two days a week so she could spend more time at home.
"I've wanted to be a nurse ever since I was 12. I still love what I do," she said.
"But it's all about balance, and I love what I do because I can choose the hours I work," she said.
WATCH | Montreal nurse says forced full-time work brought her to tears:
Bak no longer has that choice.
The collective agreement negotiated between her union, the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ) and the province last fall will soon force her to double the number of shifts she works per week.
Health agencies across the province have been gradually introducing the change for part-time nurses since the fall.
Bak's workload is set to double starting next month.
She and other part-time nurses CBC spoke to said the measure has them considering leaving the public system or quitting nursing altogether.
"They're taking me away from my family. And that's not my choice. It's wrong. It's just completely wrong," Bak said.
Goal was to lighten workload
The deal signed last fall was hailed by Health Minister Christian Dubé as a "breath of fresh air" for nurses that would help modernize the system and attract more people to the profession.
Under the previous agreement, permanent part-time nurses were required to work at least eight shifts over a 28-day period — two shifts a week. The new collective agreement increases that number to 14 shifts over a 28-day period, nearly doubling the workload.
The measure is mandatory for all permanent part-time nurses in the public system, with a few exceptions.
Nurses over 55 and nurses who are teaching or studying are exempt, as are nurses who work at more than one institution.
None of those exceptions applies to Bak or two other part-time nurses CBC spoke to.
Liliane Côté, a spokesperson for the FIQ, told CBC in an email that most nurses welcome the change.
"The objective was to stabilize work teams and offer full-time positions on a voluntary basis," Coté said.
She said the measure will help reduce compulsory overtime for nurses, maintain better continuity of care and make scheduling for part-time nurses more predictable.
Neither Côté nor the Health Ministry was able to say precisely how many nurses in the province are affected.
Measure 'slipped under the table'
Bak and the other nurses CBC spoke to said they understand why the measure was introduced, but they think they should have been able to opt out.
Bak said the deal came together hastily during a flurry of contract negotiations last summer.
"A lot of nurses didn't even know there was a vote about this," Bak said.
CBC interviewed two other part-time nurses, one who works at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, and one who works at an institution in the CISSS (Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux) in Chaudière-Appalaches.
CBC has agreed not to use their names because they fear reprisal for speaking out.
The nurse at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital said she first learned of the forced workload increase in a letter she received from the local health agency last month.
"They kind of slipped it under the table and we all found out last minute," she said.
The nurse in Chaudière-Appalaches was aware of the change last fall, but it wasn't immediately clear what was involved.
"This clause was very poorly explained by the union. It's almost like they wanted to hide it," she said.
Fears of less family time, more burnout
Like Bak, the nurse in Chaudière-Appalaches chooses to work two days a week so she has more time to look after her young children.
"I put taking care of my kids before going to work in the hospital," she said.
Bak said going from two days a week to four would affect her whole family. Her husband runs his own business, and her children are aged seven, five and three.
"I feel like I would probably become burned out," she said.
The nurse at the Jewish General started working part-time two days a week 10 years ago, when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
"I love the team I work with. I love my patients and I felt like I was still able to be a good nurse and give to the system," she said.
"Now I'm worried that I'll get sick doing this and that it'll push me out of health care," she said.
Part-time nurses feel sacrificed
"We're aware that for a small number of our members, this may have certain negative impacts," the FIQ's Côté told CBC.
"Collective bargaining is not a perfect exercise," she said.
"We have to find the balance between the needs and the objectives to be achieved in order to globally improve the working conditions of all our members," Côté said.
Bak and the two other nurses note that only 54 per cent of members voted in favour of the new collective agreement.
They feel like they're being sacrificed.
"I feel like they treat us as if we're just a number," Bak said.
"They just look at the bigger picture and say 'we have lack of nurses, let's just make them work more,'" she said.
The nurse at the Jewish General Hospital said she thinks the FIQ did "a terrible job" of representing her interests.
"I worked throughout COVID. I didn't take any time off. I was trying to protect the community's safety and health," she said.
"And when it comes down to mine now, they're willing to let me go," she said.
Nurses considering leaving
The provincial Health Ministry responded to CBC in a statement.
"The ministry is confident that this measure will not have a deterrent effect on nursing staff," the statement said.
"The desire of the negotiating parties was to ensure better stability for the work teams," it said.
All three nurses CBC spoke to said the measure has them thinking about quitting.
"I don't really have a Plan B. I guess it would be to look into the private sector," Bak said.
"I'm already planning my next career, because I won't stay in a network where the working conditions are poor," the nurse in Chaudiere-Appalache said.
"It's quite stressful. I'm losing sleep," the nurse at the Jewish General said. "Maybe I'll try it out at the risk of my own health."
"Maybe I'm going to be pushed out. Maybe I'm going to consider going private. I don't know, I really don't know," she said.