20 years ago, N.W.T. government used bonuses to recruit 65 full-time nurses. Why not now?

A labour shortage that will force more than 100 people from the N.W.T. and Nunavut's Kitikmeot region to give birth in Alberta is prompting questions from MLAs and workers about what tools the government has to hire and retain nurses. 

Current collective agreement treats nurses the same as all territorial employees

Nurses tending to patients during the pandemic face burnout without hazard pay, and the territorial government is looking for ways to fix shortstaffing at Stanton Territorial, which deprives nurses and healthcare staff of their leave. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A labour shortage that will force more than 100 people from the N.W.T. and Nunavut's Kitikmeot region to give birth in Alberta is prompting questions from MLAs and workers about what tools the government has to hire and retain nurses. 

Health Minister Julie Green said in the legislature Tuesday that collective bargaining, which extends to all territorial employees, prevents the government from applying hiring and retention bonuses to nurses alone.

But CBC has learned that in 2000 the government did just that, signing a memo that gave nurses retention bonuses.

A Public Service Annual Report states that in 1999 the N.W.T. government and the union negotiated a temporary market supplement to recruit and retain registered nurses during a nursing shortage.

This included $3,000 for newly hired indeterminate nurses and a retention bonus between $3,000 and $5,000 based on years of service. In total, the territory was able to recruit 65 full-time equivalent nurses. 

Health Minister Julie Green in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly on Nov. 23. She's said the government is limited from offering up retention and signing bonuses because the collective agreement applies to many territorial employees. (Travis Burke/CBC)

The current collective agreement is "not addressing the needs of health care workers" because they are lumped in with all government workers with vastly different working conditions than health care staff, said Tina Drew, president of Local 11 of the Union of Northern Workers. 

"Looking at a parameter that would work better for those professionals needs to be addressed," said Drew. 

Current recruitment postings offer up "generous" leave, but to keep health care workers, the government has to actually honour the paid time off agreed to when people sign on as employees, said Drew.

Full-time nurses are entitled to 16 days of paid leave per year, 5 Donny Days and 10 statutory holidays, but junior staff "could end up with no leave" if senior staff don't forgo their time off, Drew said.

"If you can't take any of that leave, it's very hard to keep working here," she said, because of the "physical toll" of switching from night to day shifts. 

Due to unspecified "operational needs" many health care staff, especially junior staff working through the pandemic, were denied the vacation time laid out in their contracts.

Health care workers are not "greedy people asking for more time off," said Drew. 

"We'd like the government to say they'll honour it," she said. 

Obstretic nurses, denied part-time, quit

During COVID-19, many nurses were forced to use sick and special leave "because we're health care workers," Drew said, while other territorial employees were able to work from home. 

The government is also losing staff because of inflexible work arrangements. Two obstetrics nurses requested to work part-time, she said. When that request was denied, they quit.

At the next round of bargaining, it should be made less attractive to deny an employees leave, Drew suggested. It's currently cheaper for the N.W.T. government to deny leave and pay out an employee's time off rather than to bring up locum staff to fill in, she said.

This cost structure "works for management. It doesn't work for the workers," Drew said, adding that permanent staff have left their jobs at Stanton and become locums down south. 

Health minister acknowledges nurses 'burnt out'

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said in the legislature on Tuesday that he doesn't accept that collective bargaining stands in the way of working on signing and retention bonuses. 

Johnson said nurses are requesting signing bonuses and pay increases, but the N.W.T. is "losing that competition" with the provinces. 

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson in the Legislative Assembly Nov. 23. He said the N.W.T. is losing the competition for nurses to other regions. (Travis Burke/CBC)

He said year after year, there are talks of nurses organizing their own union.

Health Minister Julie Green said the government has recruited from career fairs, employed every graduate from Aurora College in the last year, called agencies and asked people to cancel their transfer assignments. They've also asked people who are no longer nurses to return. 

Green said she knows nurses are "burned out. They have had their leave cancelled and shortened, and they are at the end of their rope."

The collective agreement, settled this spring, will last for two years. 

In total, the labour shortage is affecting up to 120 pregnant people.

Between 80 and 90 people would have given birth at Stanton Territorial and another 30 people from the Kitikmeot would have given birth in the N.W.T. 

Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler, a nurse herself, said in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday that retention has always been a challenge, but "this government needs to see that what we're doing is not working."

Nurses are "burning out, their work environment is toxic [and] their concerns are not being addressed," she said.

Semmler encouraged registered nurses to complete a survey that is open until Sunday (Nov. 28) and The Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest. 

The association's survey is built to to ask nurses directly what issues are impacting nurse recruitment and retention.