Unions, regulators unclear on Sask. plans for international health-care workers

The ministry of health says it's looking at ways for foreign health providers to help in unregulated positions while awaiting licensing. But unions and regulators tell CBC News they haven't been consulted.

Premier Scott Moe has said international health-care workers could help during Omicron wave

Saskatchewan's plans to help boost health-care staffing include working with colleges, employers and regulators on international recruitment. (Hendrik Schmidt/dpa/The Associated Press)

Saskatchewan health-care unions and regulators say they know little about the government's ideas to have international workers assist with staff shortages caused by the Omicron variant. 

At a provincial COVID-19 update on Jan. 12, Premier Scott Moe said the government has inquired about the number of international health-care providers currently in Saskatchewan, and how many have applied to the province. 

"And is there an opportunity for us in this province to allow those folks, that have applied to work as a nurse, as a [licensed practical nurse], as a [continuing care assistant], to bring those into our health-care facilities?" Moe said. 

"Because we will need them in the weeks ahead, as their applications are being processed by their respective governing bodies."

Health ministry says consultations 'continue'

In an email to CBC News Monday, the ministry of health stated it is working with the provincial health authority and the public safety agency to ensure "appropriate staffing levels" during the Omicron wave. 

It listed initiatives to bolster staffing include "working with deans, colleges, employers and regulators to encourage recruitment, and provide information on available training and job opportunities in health care, including how to apply for nursing and other hard-to-recruit positions."

The ministry said efforts are also underway to "explore opportunities" for foreign health providers to work in "unregulated positions while they await licensure in a regulated health profession."

"Consultations with unions, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders will continue to take place over the coming weeks," the email reads, without indicating the groups currently involved in discussions.

No discussions yet: unions, regulators

The College of Registered Nurses of Saskatchewan confirmed Friday the government has inquired about the number of internationally-educated nurses with whom the group is working.

However, "no further discussions have taken place at this time."

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan said it has had "no recent contact with, or recent discussions with" the provincial government about the "possible licensure of internationally-trained physicians."

Saskatchewan Polytechnic offers a bridging program for internationally-educated nurses, which provides credit for previous experience to facilitate their transition into the provincial workforce.

I dare say that we waited far too long to do this. We waited until we were drained, nearly dry. And people are suffering greatly, ​​​- Tracy Zambory, Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president

The school's president and CEO, Dr. Larry Rosia, told CBC News Monday there have been no discussions with the provincial government about international recruitment. 

Barbara Cape, the president of Service Employees International Union-West, said the union has not been consulted, adding SEIU-West asked for clarity from the ministry of health, "but nobody has any answers."

"They are not looking locally, and then act globally," Cape said. "There are no partnerships right now with First Nations and Métis communities about upgrading education, about creating some opportunities here at home.

Cape's views are shared by the head of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses. Tracy Zambory told CBC News international workers are a great resource, but can't be the sole focus.

"Nursing recruitment is just only one part of what needs to be a fulsome concrete health human resource strategy," Zambory said. 

"We have to be looking at the retention of what we have, of our registered nurses that are here. We have to be making sure that we are having conversations with the Indigenous community."

Zambory said SUN also has not been consulted by the provincial government, despite the union's willingness to be at the table. 

She added that the challenges are going to be "extreme" when it comes to properly supporting international health-care workers in an already short-staffed and burned-out work environment. 

"I dare say that we waited far too long to do this. We waited until we were drained, nearly dry. And people are suffering greatly," she said.

"It is going to be really difficult to insert new people, to find mentors who aren't so overworked themselves, or a facility, unit and agency that isn't."

With files from Yasmine Ghania