Toronto

Ontario doctors dispute nurses' claims about pandemic pay

The Ontario Medical Association, the organization representing the province's doctors, says that some of the claims nurses have made about the pay physicians receive when working as so-called nurse extenders during the pandemic are not true. 

Pay rate cited by nurses applies only when physicians are working as doctors, not when supporting nurses: OMA

Deepi Saharan, an intensive care unit nurse in the Toronto area who cares for COVID-19 patients, says nurses have not been compensated fairly for the work they have been doing in the pandemic. Her recent post on Instagram, in which she said nurses were 'unappreciated' and 'disrespected,' received support from thousands of people. (Submitted by Deepi Saharan)

The professional organization representing Ontario's doctors says that some of the claims nurses have made about the pay physicians receive when working as so-called nurse extenders during the pandemic are not true. 

Nurses previously told CBC News that doctors were earning as much as $450 an hour in intensive care units while working to support nurses being paid $33 to $48 an hour.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) says those rates are what the Ministry of Health agreed to pay doctors at hospitals experiencing COVID-19 surges in 2020 but that they only make those rates while working as physicians. 

"The Ministry of Health agreed in 2020 that physicians working in busy COVID areas, such as emergency departments or ICUs, could bill an hourly rate rather than list every medical service they perform during extraordinarily busy times," OMA spokesperson Leslie Shepherd told CBC by email.

"This was meant to reduce the administrative burden on physicians. There was no pandemic 'bonus' pay for physicians."

In some cases, ICUs in dire need of staff because of COVID-19 cases have employed doctors in nurse-extender positions. It's not clear how much doctors earn while working in those roles.

"Some physicians have volunteered to cover nursing shifts to allow nurses to have time off or to address staffing gaps. It's up to individual hospitals and the Ministry of Health to decide how to compensate physicians working as nurses," Shepherd said.

Shepherd referred questions about how much doctors earn when they work nurse-extender shifts to the Ministry of Health or individual hospitals. The Ontario Hospital Association also referred questions to the ministry. 

A spokesperson for the ministry told CBC in an email that there is no specific funding for doctors working as nurses and that hospitals make their own human resources decisions.

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Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO), previously told CBC the pay discrepancy was upsetting for nurses, who had to train doctors to do those jobs.

She defended her comments in a second interview Thursday and said it doesn't make sense that neither the OMA nor the hospital association nor the ministry could say how much doctors are paid for nursing shifts.

"They're trying to bury it in the closet again," Grinspun said. "If there is nothing to hide, then why not tell us how much they're getting paid?"

She said she regularly hears from nurses who are being helped out by doctors whose usual work has been interrupted by the pandemic, including surgeons and anesthesiologists, and she suspects those doctors are earning their normal wages. 

Deepi Saharan, 27, received support from thousands of people when she posted about the discrepancy on Instagram recently.

"Unappreciated, disrespected, and lack of support for nurses by this Ford Government," she wrote, referring to the government of Premier Doug Ford.

Saharan claimed that some physicians were earning as much as 10 times what nurses were being paid. "HOW IS THAT OKAY??" her post said.

Asked about the OMA's response Wednesday, Saharan still insisted that "nurses are not being compensated fairly" for the work they are doing. She said she was only speaking on her own behalf and not for her union, governing body or employer.

Nurses' pandemic pay lasted 4 months

In April 2020, Ontario offered nurses and other front-line workers a $4-an-hour pay hike for 16 weeks, plus a $250 lump-sum payment for each of the next four months if they worked more than 100 hours per month. But that pay expired in August.

Nikki Skillen, another ICU nurse in the GTA, said many nurses are reconsidering their profession or thinking about moving to the United States, where the pay is better. She's applying for a U.S. visa to have in her "back pocket," she told CBC News.

"There has been absolutely no incentive for us here," said Skillen, who's been an ICU nurse for 24 years in the Toronto area.

Nikki Skillen, a veteran ICU nurse in the Greater Toronto Area, says many nurses in Ontario are reconsidering their profession or thinking about moving to the U.S., where the pay is better. (Submitted by Nikki Skillen)

Both she and Saharan, who did not want to identify the hospitals where they work, said that nurses' raises are also being capped at a maximum of one per cent a year under legislation introduced by the Ontario government in 2019.

"We were really enraged by this," said Skillen, who started a Facebook group to fight against the wage cap. "We're worth more than one per cent."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health previously told CBC that the government values all health-care workers and that the temporary pay rate for physicians was meant to provide flexibility for hospitals during the pandemic.

David Jensen didn't respond to a question about why nurses aren't getting a pay boost while physicians continue to receive temporary pandemic pay but did say that Ontario is spending $52 million to recruit and retain 3,700 new health-care workers, including nurses.

"This is one of the largest health-care recruiting and training initiatives in the province's history," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emma Paling is a senior writer with CBC News in Toronto. She previously worked at HuffPost Canada, where she covered Ontario politics.

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