Where's the money? N.W.T. nurses lay out demands in letter to MLAs

N.W.T. nurses say they have not been properly compensated during the pandemic and want the territorial government to do something about it — but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Nurses seek return of sick days, $4 an hour retroactive wage increase

Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife on Aug. 21, 2021. In a letter to MLAs, nurses called for more compensation. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Some N.W.T. nurses say they have not been properly compensated during the pandemic and want the territorial government to do something about it — but it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

After raising concerns with management and their union, former and current nurses described growing frustration over inaction while jurisdictions across the country have handed out pay raises or a one-time lump sum to their counterparts.

In a letter forwarded to N.W.T. MLAs and cabinet ministers as first reported by Cabin Radio, nurses outlined several issues including a lack of hazard pay and a loss of personal vacation and sick leave.

"The healthcare workers have worked tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and have not been adequately compensated for their sacrifices," the letter reads.

"Many staff members have put their personal health at risk and are burnt out. Healthcare workers are leaving their professions at an alarming rate, and every area in the [Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority] has multiple vacancies."

The letter asks for the return of personal sick time that nurses had to take after being exposed to COVID-19 while at work, a $4 an hour wage increase retroactive to March 2020, retention bonuses for current staff, and signing bonuses for new hires.

Nurses CBC News spoke to on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, say the dispute over sick leave and vacation days has been a long-simmering battle throughout the pandemic.

They say they took their concerns to management months ago and wrote a letter to their union but have gotten nowhere. They described morale at an all time low, and work at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife as an "extremely undesirable workplace."

N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green says increasing nurses' salaries arbitrarily 'is very unlikely to happen.' (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Increasing salaries 'very unlikely to happen': minister

In an interview with CBC News, the N.W.T. health minister, Julie Green, said the content of the letter did not come as a surprise, but she treats the concerns seriously.

She said a formal written response to the nurses' letter will come in the next week or so.

Green said raises are coming in line with the collective agreement between the union the nurses belong to and the territorial government, but could not promise anything beyond that.

She said the territory is looking for solutions around retaining staff but increasing their salaries arbitrarily "is very unlikely to happen."

That's because Green said the nurses are part of the Union of Northern Workers and bound to the same collective agreement as other territorial government employees.

"It's hard to hive off an occupation and treat them differently than other civil servants," Green said.

"We need to come up with a policy – and we're working on it now – about how we can compensate people who are frontline throughout the whole public service. We wouldn't be able to do it for nurses and not do it for jail guards or other people who don't have the work-from-home option."

Green said there's no timeline for that now and would not venture into what it would look like or how much it would cost.

Nurse vacancy rate up over 55 per cent since December 2020

Green pointed out the nurses have the second highest rate of pay in the country but acknowledged the gap has closed as a nursing shortage has taken hold across the country and other jurisdictions have raised salaries.

As of the end of June, the nurse vacancy rate in the N.W.T. was 26.3 per cent, up from 16.8 per cent as of Dec. 31, 2020, according to figures provided to CBC News by Green.

"The result is it's harder to recruit nurses to the Northwest Territories than it was a year ago," she said.

Green said there are a lot of different factors at play, suggesting pay and a desire to be closer to family. She said exit surveys are being conducted on nurses who have left their profession since January to get a better sense of their reasons.

She also said the Northwest Territories Registered Nurses Association is conducting a survey of its own on job satisfaction.

In an email, Tina Drew, the president of Local 11 North Great Slave Region, the division that represents government workers at Stanton Territorial Hospital, wrote the government needs to take care of the health care professionals who currently live and work here.

Federal funding

In the letter to MLAs, the nurses also sought clarification of where some federal funding announced in April 2020 had been allocated.

Green said the N.W.T. received $20 million and spent it on COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, data management, wastewater sampling, setting up a virtual care platform and the immunization drive.

She said the money did not specifically go to salaries, but may have ended up there, for instance, in overtime pay to nurses who travelled as part of the territory's vaccine campaign.

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, one of the 19 MLAs who received letters from the nurses, said the union and the ministers of finance and health need to meet to discuss the issues raised in the letter.

"There seems to be this downward spiral in morale and we're losing the retention battle. And that's just … so frustrating to me because this is actually one of the best places to live and work," Johnson said.

"We're competing across Canada for nurses right now … and we're losing that battle."

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