Vacancies putting pressure on P.E.I. nursing system, says union

Nurses on P.E.I. are starting to feel the pressure of there not being enough of them to go around, says the president of the P.E.I. Nurses’ Union.

‘We were at an all-time high back in January, of vacant positions’

There are a little over 100 vacancies for nursing positions on P.E.I. (Shutterstock)

Nurses on P.E.I. are starting to feel the pressure of there not being enough of them to go around, says the president of the P.E.I. Nurses' Union.

"We have huge vacancies here on P.E.I.," said Mona O'Shea. "We were at an all-time high back in January, of vacant positions, of 160."

The situation has improved with the addition of a number of nurses from the spring graduating class, bringing vacancies down to a little more than 100, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created issues with those new nurses as well.

Most of those new recruits would normally have taken their registered nurse exams by now, but the pandemic has delayed them. Because they are not RNs yet, they can't work unsupervised on a shift.

A few were able to write the exam, said O'Shea, and most are expected to be able to write one scheduled for the end of August.

Mentorship falling by wayside

The shortage of nurses is also causing problems with the province's mentorship program. 

Problems are piling up for P.E.I.'s nurses, says union president Mona O'Shea. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Nurses are working overtime to cover vacant positions, and then they don't have the energy for mentoring duties.

"While we do know it's a very important role, it's taxing and it's long hours sometimes," said O'Shea.

"It is one of our recruitment strategies to have a good mentorship program but right now we really haven't got it off the ground and running."

Pandemic complicating scheduling

The pandemic has also made it difficult to cover shifts at long-term care facilities.

Public health rules prevent nurses who work in other health-care facilities from working in long-term care facilities. That's to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spreading from one place to another.

We have a global shortage of registered nurses.— Mona O'Shea, P.E.I. Nurses' Union

But it means that a nurse who works part-time or full-time in one place can't take any shifts in a long-term care facility, which is where the majority of the staff shortages are.

"We are hopeful that that restriction may be lifted soon, so that some of these nurses who actually do casual work in our long-term care facilities can go back to doing that,"  said O'Shea.

Recruitment strategy compromised

The province has been putting a lot of effort into recruitment since the fall, O'Shea said, and with some success.

There has to be a little more reassurance that you will get your time off.— Mona O'Shea, P.E.I. Nurses' Union

But it has been difficult, and it isn't getting any easier.

"We have a global shortage of registered nurses," she said.

"I think that they're trying, but COVID has interfered with some of the strategies that the employer does want to put out there."

The high number of vacancies is also adding to that difficulty, she said. The union said that because of the shortage of nurses, requests for leave are being denied, and potential recruits will ask about that.

O'Shea said her office has been getting calls from members that their summer vacation has been cancelled — in some cases leave that was approved just last month.

She said she's working to confirm if that's so. And if that vacation isn't re-instated, the union plans to file a grievance for the employees affected

"There has to be a little more reassurance that you will get your time off," she said.

It's also important to give nurses their vacation, she said, so they can be rested in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Health PEI said it can't confirm vacations are being cancelled.

But, a spokesperson for Health PEI acknowledged the importance of nurses getting their time off, noting in the spring many nurses gave up scheduled holiday to respond to the pandemic.

"We are doing what we can to ensure people get a much deserved vacation," wrote the spokesperson in an email to CBC News.

"At the same time … we need to maintain enough staff to meet the labour demand for service delivery." 

Health PEI said it needs to make sure there are enough medical staff to handle the special demands during the pandemic, and it is working to recruit more staff.

Nurses are the largest group of health-care providers on the Island with about 2,000 RNs, nurse practitioners and licensed practical nurses. The nurses' union represents more than 1,200 of them.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Jessica Doria-Brown


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