Nova Scotia

N.S. health-care workers face redeployment, denied days off due to staffing shortages

Unions representing health-care workers in Nova Scotia say their members desperately need help.

More staff will quit if conditions don't change, warn unions

Hundreds of Nova Scotia Health employees cannot go to work because of interactions with COVID-19, placing more pressure on an already strained system. (Getty Images)

Unions representing health-care workers in Nova Scotia say their members desperately need relief after two years of being on the front lines of the pandemic.

The province's health authority said Wednesday hospitals across the province are running at 99.5 per cent capacity, with hundreds of staff currently off the job due to COVID-19 — more than at any other point since 2019.

Staffing shortages are putting even more pressure on those still at work.

"They're denied time off and vacation leave," said Sandra Mullen, vice-president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

"They have been our heroes through these two years, and this is not how we should treat heroes."

The shortages are pushing some health-care workers into positions outside their expertise, said Mullen, whose union represents 18,000 health-care workers in the province.

She said employees show up to work in their set field and are redeployed to emergency rooms or other departments they're unfamiliar with.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, said overtime is at an all-time high, with no relief in sight.

"Unless you're very senior in the unit, you're not getting any vacation this summer," she said. "Many didn't get vacation last summer because of COVID."

Both Hazelton and Mullen say the stress on staff has forced some to quit.

Restrictions lifted

In its latest update, the provincial government reported an average of 598 new COVID-19 cases per day. Hospitalizations from the virus have never been higher.

Nova Scotia lifted most public health restrictions on March 21, including the mask mandate for most indoor public places.

"A lot of my members were concerned about that," Hazelton said. "They were concerned that we were going to see a spike in our hospitalizations."

While masks remain mandatory in health-care facilities, Hazelton said the rule has been hard to enforce since the mandate was lifted in other places.

Mullen said she would support the province reinstating a broad mask mandate to protect the health-care system. 

'They're going to quit'

In the meantime, she said her union is working with the province to recruit and retain more health-care workers. She said the government needs to recognize working conditions for health-care workers must improve.

Hazelton recommends the government look at every option possible to allow nurses to go on vacation and get a much-needed break — even if that means temporarily closing some clinics.

"We should be able to look at a clinic and say, 'How busy are they? What service are they providing? Is it critical?'" she said. "If it isn't, then let's talk about reducing it."

Hazelton said she knows that decision would be unpopular among Nova Scotians who have been on surgery wait-lists for years, but something has to change. 

"Unless we do something, they're going to quit. They're just going to leave, and that makes our situation even worse," she said.

with files from Preston Mulligan


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