$10K bonuses for Nunavut nurses drove Iqaluit lab technologists to resign

Five Iqaluit laboratory technologists resigned in the fall, partly over being denied a $10,000 retention bonus offered to Nunavut's nurses.

Bonuses were handed to Nunavut's nurses to prevent closures of community health centres

A medical lab technician draws a blood sample for a point of care COVID-19 antibody test at the B.C Centre for Disease Control lab in Vancouver, British Columbia on in this file photo from May 2020. Five Iqaluit lab technologists resigned in the fall, after being denied a $10,000 retention bonus offered to Nunavut's nurses, according to the organization representing them. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The final straw before five of Iqaluit's laboratory technologists resigned in the fall, was a lack of gratitude — and a $10,000 bonus — by the government of Nunavut for their work, according to the organization which certifies them.

Last week, The Globe and Mail reported five of Iqaluit's eight lab technologists resigned in November and December.

The laboratory team at the Qikiqtani General Hospital is responsible for processing COVID-19 test results in the Qikiqtaaluk region, among other things. Territory-wide testing was curtailed recently to help free up other vital testing services, health officials said on Jan. 6. There are three technologists currently working at the lab, with another on the way.

The Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) represents some 14,000 lab technologists across Canada. 

The organization provided CBC News with a letter the hospital's laboratory team sent to deputy Health minister Colleen Stockley in September, shortly after Nunavut's health department announced a $10,000 retention bonus for the territory's nurses.

At the time, Stockley characterized the bonus as an "expression of gratitude" for the nurses' work during the pandemic, according to a memo from Sept. 14, also provided to CBC News by the CSMLS.

Five days later, the laboratory team wrote to Stockley, saying they couldn't "help but feel insulted to be left out from this compensation along with other health professionals," adding they were happy to see the nurses rewarded.

"The letter announcing this bonus states being proud of nursing colleagues, with this being especially true for the health care teams in Nunavut. The irony of including 'health care teams,' while completely ignoring all other professions is extremely disheartening."

The laboratory team requested the bonus be extended to them, along with other health care workers.

"The lab was beside themselves," said Christine Nielsen, the CEO of the CSMLS.

"Who do they think is doing all of the COVID-19 testing? While we don't see patients directly, we're handling the most infectious specimens we've ever had."

The Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit. Lab technologists here are responsible for processing COVID-19 tests across the Qikiqtaaluk region, among other duties. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Bonuses were meant to save health centres from closing

Stockley responded to the letter three weeks later, saying the incentives were "not intended to create a divide within the health staff, nor was it intended to recognize the hard work of only one group within this team."

Stockley did not address the request to extend the bonuses to other staff. But she further contextualized the bonuses, clarifying they were part of a strategy to prevent closures across Nunavut's community health centres.

"The Department of Health was forecasting complete closures of several health centres across the territory due to the nursing shortage," Stockley wrote, adding other communities were facing reductions of services to emergencies only.

"Since health centres are the only option for Nunavummiut to access health care services in our communities outside the regional hubs, [the department of] health had to take swift action to prevent health centre closures and mitigate safety risks."

The St. Therese's Health Centre in Kugaaruk, pictured on Sept. 29, 2020, was among several temporary health centre closed during the summer of 2021 amid territory-wide nursing shortages. Five were open for emergencies only, while two other closed altogether. (John Last/CBC)

Losing remaining techs is 'a risk'

Still, Nielsen says her organization wants the government to acknowledge the lab technologists' work, financially, or risk losing them.

And while the refusal to extend the bonuses was "the straw that broke the camel's back," she said other workplace issues — including short staffing, long hours, and the hardships of working in the North — were also factors behind the resignations. Some of the resignations came from people with a year remaining on their contracts, and all were aware of the abundance of work available elsewhere in Canada.

"The [lab technologists] that are left, they definitely need to be given the respect due for their expertise. They're the only ones who can do this for the whole community," Neilsen said.

"If push comes to shove, we don't want to see that entire community without lab services. That would be a crisis that nobody can anticipate."

In an interview, Health Minister John Main said Nunavut's laboratory technologists are "extremely valuable" at this particular time, given the pressures of working in a pandemic, and said the department values all its employees.

While he declined to elaborate on whether denying the bonuses to other health care workers was the right decision or not, he said recruitment and retention is a priority for him.

"Part of that is looking at: What can we do to show our employees that we do value them?" Main said.

"To show them that we want them to have a healthy work environment, to show them that we want to compensate them in a competitive manner when we look at other jurisdictions in Canada."


Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.