45 nurses extend contract with Veterans Affairs as P.E.I. struggles with 'widespread vacancies'

A group of P.E.I. nurses who were recruited by Veterans Affairs Canada to help clear a backlog in disability claims has decided to stay on at the department for another two years.

Nurses' union says 'big exodus' of senior staff likely coming

P.E.I.'s health-care system is struggling with widespread staffing shortages. (Prince County Hospital Foundation)

A group of P.E.I. nurses recruited by Veterans Affairs Canada in 2020 to help clear a backlog in disability claims has decided to stay at the department for another two years.

Forty-five nurses have signed contracts to continue at Veteran Affairs, which had originally planned to have the work completed by this month. 

The nurses' decision comes as the province's health-care system is struggling with widespread staffing shortages.

Barbara Brookins, president of the P.E.I. Nurses' Union, said the union was not involved in any of the contract negotiations.

Ideally, the nurses would have returned to the provincial system around this time, she said. 

"We need them everywhere. We have widespread vacancies throughout the health system," Brookins said.

"We're getting more and more calls where members are calling us and they're being required to work double shifts ... They're doing their own workload, plus more. And so each shift brings its own challenges. And they're coming away from those shifts exhausted."

Barbara Brookins, president of the P.E.I. Nurses' Union, said more retention incentives are needed to keep nurses working for the province. (CBC)

Brookins said nurses can't take the vacation days they are owed because of the vacancies. 

The P.E.I. Nurses' Union said 262 of its positions within Health PEI aren't currently filled. And Health P.E.I. said 14 per cent of its full-time nursing jobs were vacant as of last month.

'There's going to be a big exodus'

Because the 45 nurses had to give up their positions at Health P.E.I. in order to work with Veterans Affairs, Brookins said they aren't committed to return to work with the province.

She said it may not seem like much, but having 45 more nurses would make a "huge" difference.

"There's at least 285 of our members that are eligible to retire. We had looked at that number last year. And because of the pension and the pension indexing, some of them have decided to kind of hang in there until the end of 2022. But at the end of 2022, I'm guessing there's going to be a big exodus," she said.

"We're hoping that UPEI will be graduating a good class for us this year and they'll be coming into the workforce. But there's no guarantee that they're going to arrive before the summer." 

Opposition Health Critic Michele Beaton said it isn't shocking the nurses decided to stay on at Veterans Affairs. 

"We know that recruitment and retention was an issue back then before Health P.E.I. was ever formed. This is not a surprise, but successive governments have ignored it and they have gone on the premise that we'll just keep our frontline health-care workers working as hard as we can," she said.

"We forget to support them. And governments need to stop doing that. They need to stop using words, and they need to start using action. And there is report after report that supports what they need to be doing."

'A bonus, a thank you'

Health P.E.I. said incentives are offered to nurses willing to relocate to the Island.

"We are working to improve retention through wellness initiatives for staff, additional training, and leadership supports, all with an aim to support staff in their work," a Health P.E.I. spokesperson said in an email.

Brookins said the province needs to do a lot more to ensure they stay working within the system.

"When we look at retention incentives, we're looking at the ability for them to get leave, we're looking at a recognition. And basically, at this point, it does come down to a monetary figure," she said. 

"A bonus, a thank you. Like no more empty platitudes. The banging of the pots and all this stuff, that's done. Like, I mean, we all know that we've done the best that we can do. We've gone above and beyond."

Fifty-five nurses were originally recruited to work with Veterans Affairs to clear the backlog back in 2020. 

Back then, there were 22,000 disability claims to process. About 12,000 of those still remain.

Veterans Affairs officials say some of the nurses who renewed their contracts could stay beyond two years because even if the backlog is fully clear, they will need to keep wait times at acceptable levels.

With files from Jessica Doria-Brown