Quebec nurses say paying student interns could help solve staffing crisis in ERs

With many hospitals in Quebec suffering staff shortages, nurses say a solution could be paying student nurses during their internships.

Paying nursing students for their internships could help attract and retain more nurses

Katia Maksoud is taking a break from her nursing studies, saying she feels undervalued because of unpaid internships. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Katia Maksoud is in her second year of nursing studies at CEGEP du Vieux-Montréal. As part of her studies, she's had to do two internships, spending up to 10 hours a week working in a hospital setting, all the while going to class full time.

Maksoud administered medication, cleaned wounds, and evaluated and monitored patients. The work, she says, was "gratifying."

It was also unpaid.

"It doesn't pay bills, it doesn't pay your rent, it doesn't pay anything," Maksoud said.

With Quebec currently suffering from a staffing crisis in hospitals and health-care centres, Quebec's nurses say emergency measures need to be taken quickly and that paying student nurses could be part of the solution.

As nursing students progress in their studies, the internships become more demanding; some students spend up to 40 hours a week working in a hospital. Many must take on part-time work on evenings and weekends just to make ends meet.

"It's extremely demotivating," said Maksoud, who now feels so undervalued she has decided to postpone her studies this year.

A union representing health-care workers, the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS) says the province set the precedent at the beginning of the pandemic, when it overcame a shortage of patient attendants and orderlies by offering salaries to those who signed up for training.

But student nurses were not treated the same way, despite the fact that they played a critical role during the pandemic, said Natalie Stake-Doucet, president of the Quebec Nurses' Association and a PhD candidate in nursing administration. The young nurses provided care in hospitals and long-term care homes.

Natalie Stake-Doucet says student nurses could be a solution to the current health-care staffing crisis. (CBC)

''The actual work that they do is real work,'' said Stake-Doucet.

She says it's common practice in many fields to pay interns when you have a shortage of employees.

Jeff Begley, president of the FSSS union, says that over the last 15 years, the working conditions in health care have steadily deteriorated making it hard to attract and retain employees.

''If we don't get a hold on this, then we're going to be putting in danger the accessibility of the services for the larger public,'' said Begley.

Allegations of systemic discrimination

Both Begley and Stake-Doucet say it's no coincidence that unpaid internships are common in fields where the workforce is mostly composed of women.

''It's mind boggling and it's hard not to think about sexism when you see the jobs where that is done,'' said Stake-Doucet about paid internships.

Begley says there is interest in working in the health-care system, but poor working conditions remain an obstacle.

Jeff Begley, president of the Fédération de la Santé et des Services Sociaux. (CBC)

He suggests auxiliary nurses could be offered paid training to become registered nurses.

Begley recalls the early days of the pandemic, when there was a dire shortage of orderlies and patient attendants in CHSLDs.

In June 2020, the province decided to pay people during their training and guarantee a steady job if they succeeded.

''The response from the public was enormous. 90 000 people answered the call for 10 000 people that were needed," Begley said.

"Obviously, improving the salary pay was a really important step, but the fact that the training was paid was also something that permitted people to say, 'OK, I can take this step, and I won't have to live in poverty for the period of the training,'" Begley said.

The Health Ministry says it has several measures to encourage nursing students, including a program that offers a bursary to university nursing students to suspend their studies and work during a health emergency.

The ministry also says it would be difficult to pay nurse-interns because they are limited in what tasks they can perform until they are fully certified.

But for Quebec student nurses, the government has not done enough.

''We only want adequate pay and good working conditions,'' said Maksoud.

with files from Steve Rukavina