Ontario registered practical nurses tell health minister they're not being 'fairly compensated'

The union representing registered practical nurses in Ontario says it is optimistic, following a meeting with Health Minister Christine Elliott on issues facing health-care workers.

'If anyone thinks that nurses are OK, they're sadly mistaken. Nurses are not OK,' union official says

A close up of a person's arm, in a yellow sleeve with a blue latex glove, touching the chest of someone lying on a hospital bed.
A nurse tends to a patient suspected of having COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at North York General Hospital in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The union representing registered practical nurses in Ontario says it's optimistic following a meeting with the provincial health minister Monday to discuss issues affecting front-line health-care workers — including how much they get paid.

But Katha Fortier, UNIFOR's assistant national president responsible for health care, said she knows that "change doesn't come easy."

Fortier said registered practical nurses (RPNs), who "have been bearing a heavy load during the pandemic," are not getting paid enough for the work they do. 

"The last two years have been a strain, and if anyone thinks that nurses are OK, they're sadly mistaken. Nurses are not OK," Fortier told CBC News.

The meeting with Health Minister Christine Elliott comes as the pandemic continues to put pressure on Ontario's health-care system. Although hospitalizations and intensive care admissions continue to drop as the Omicron variant wanes, RPNs are still working long hours and doing jobs they're not used to performing due to staff shortages and COVID-19-related absences.

"They have worked through what is essentially a humanitarian crisis and whether they're working in a hospital or a long- term care facility, in a retirement home, they've worked in workplaces that are in crisis," Fortier said. 

A health-care worker wearing PPE transports a patient in the dialysis unit at the Humber River Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"They've worked under emergency orders that supersede their collective agreement rights. So that means their vacation can be cancelled, they can be forced to work overtime, they can be reassigned to a unit they're unfamiliar with or even redeployed to another facility," she added.

"Registered practical nurses generally are not really fairly compensated, there's a wide range to that compensation, and so we really wanted to talk to the minister about a standard wage, whether you worked in a hospital, whether you work in long term care or home care," Fortier said.

"And we wanted to talk about good working conditions for nurses," she said, adding that long-term care homes and hospitals are pressuring RPNs to work overtime while denying them full-time jobs. 

'Morale is really at an all-time low'

Tracy Holmes, a nurse in London, Ont., said RPNs are called upon to do a wider range of jobs than ever, but their level of compensation has not changed.

"We are finding that people are quite upset about the wage. The wage has not increased with their skill, there's been no recognition to that increase of skill," she told CBC News.

"People are working long hours and struggling to get breaks and struggling to get time off. It's just, it's not been a good place to be for anybody."

Holmes said "people are tired, they're exhausted, it's hard to get time off and people are just genuinely frustrated."

Allison Lewis, an RPN in Fergus, Ont., said "morale is really at an all-time low for anybody in health care."

Pointing to the sacrifices front-line workers make, Lewis said at the beginning of the pandemic, she and quite a few of her colleagues "ended up having to move out of our homes and trying to make our own families safer, as there wasn't a lot known at the time."

Meanwhile, the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario said after nearly two years on the pandemic front lines, RPNs are feeling burnt out, and as many as 34 per cent of them are considering leaving the profession as a result.

The association said this potential for a "great resignation" of nurses in Ontario should be of significant concern.

The association has put together a list of recommendations on how to fix the issues RPNs face:

  • Make permanent the pandemic pay top-up for PSWs and extend the $3/hour pandemic pay to RPNs retroactively. 
  • Establish a provincial minimum wage for RPNs that is appropriately proportioned to RNs.
  • Increase the annual investment in the Recruitment & Retention Incentive (RRI) program for retirement homes.
  • Legislating staffing and workload standards that promote a culture of safety for the patient, resident and nurse. 
  • Move to 75 per cent full-time positions in the long-term care and home and community care sectors. 
  • Streamline the education process so RPNs can grow into the role of RN faster. 
  • Invest in a program to provide guidance to an RPN student to successfully integrate nursing theory into practice.

CBC News contacted the Ministry of Health for comment but so far there's been no response.