As nurses are celebrated across Canada during National Nurses Week, some Yellowknife nurses say they’re “seeing the exact opposite” from the territorial health authority.
Three nurses who work at Stanton Territorial Hospital independently told Cabin Radio unfair policies and mistreatment are affecting morale, staff retention, and patient care at the territory’s largest medical facility.
At the moment, the nurses said, healthcare staff who live in the NWT are told they are not deemed essential workers. That means if they return from out-of-territory travel, they are required to use vacation time to stay at home and isolate, with few exceptions.
Meanwhile, the nurses said, locum staff – short-term workers brought into the territory from elsewhere, to fill gaps – are considered essential and able to work immediately after arriving in the territory.
Cabin Radio has agreed not to publish the names of the nurses as being identified could jeopardize their employment.
“They’re treating locums significantly better than staff that have lived and worked here for years and provided to the North for years,” one nurse said, describing the policy as “unfair and outlandish.”
Another nurse questioned: “Why can two people come from the same part of down south and one of them come in and go to work, and the other – who has most likely been fully vaccinated, because he lives in the NWT – is told to sit at home for 14 days? It doesn’t make sense.”
A spokesperson for the NWT’s health authority told Cabin Radio decisions on isolation are made with the goal of keeping staff isolated as long as possible while ensuring essential services continue.
Essential workers in the NWT are able to go to work but are required to test negative for Covid-19 before they can do so and must follow precautions like wearing masks. They must isolate when not working, meaning they cannot go to stores or restaurants.
When essential staff are headed to smaller communities, the health authority said it has “worked to ensure as much as possible” that employees isolate in one of the territory’s hub communities first.
The NWT’s isolation rules are gradually evolving. On April 21, the territory said fully vaccinated people entering the NWT would no longer have to complete the full 14 days of isolation if a Covid-19 test on their eighth day of isolation comes back negative. That rule does not apply, however, to people travelling with household members who are not fully vaccinated.
Even before the pandemic, the nurses said, hospital staff could not take all of their allotted vacation days because of staffing shortages. The need to now factor in isolation has made getting time off even more challenging.
“They actually physically could not give all the vacation that everybody’s due because they would have no staff,” one nurse said.
“Getting vacation is hard enough as it is but trying to get a month off, so you can do two weeks of isolation, is next to impossible,” they added. “So essentially, nobody’s going to get to go anywhere.”
A spokesperson said the health authority has tried to make remote training and mandatory certification programs available to staff during their isolation period to “reduce the burden of using additional annual leave.”
Policy affecting staffing, patient care
The nurses said the decision not to deem resident workers essential is exacerbating staffing issues at the hospital, which they described as “critically short staffed” and reliant on locum workers.
“Critical care, especially, is really bleeding nurses right now,” one nurse said. They said colleagues were burnt out and frustrated by the lack of time off and their inability to leave the territory.
The nurses said they were thankful for locum staff – who have long been critical to hospital operations – but new locum workers need longer to learn the territory’s medical system and to see patients.
They said the consequent stress on departments is affecting patient care.
The NWT’s health authority, however, characterized the hospital’s current staffing level as “average.” A spokesperson said Stanton has always needed locum nurses and doctors to cover vacancies, vacations, and services local staff are not able to deliver.
Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, has strongly discouraged non-essential travel outside the territory – but it is not prohibited. Many healthcare workers have family outside the NWT. The nurses said they feel the same rules are not being applied to all staff.
A spokesperson for the health authority acknowledged the “complexities regarding travel” are impacting staff and all NWT residents.
“We recognize that there is frustration as the global Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted front-line healthcare workers,” the spokesperson said.
“Covid-19 is hard, and we are working to support our staff the best we can while also ensuring we protect the public by having appropriate measures in place to limit the possibilities of introduction of Covid-19.”
Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers, said in a statement that his union was “aware of concerns brought forward by our members with regard to self-isolation and essential work.”
“We are currently working with our members and the employer to find a resolution,” Parsons wrote.
‘It’s us against them’
All three nurses said the health authority’s policy regarding who is considered an essential worker is part of a larger issue. The nurses believe senior administrators at the hospital don’t show respect for the work nurses do.
“It’s at the point where it’s us against them, nurses against the administrative staff,” one said.
One nurse expressed feeling “harassed” at work. They said staff had been told they would be reported for neglecting patients if they chose to leave the territory temporarily. Their practices were questioned if they raised concerns, the nurse said.
They said nurses were accused of being disorganized and told they would not be entitled to overtime pay if they had to stay late.
Another nurse described “threatening emails” from a senior administrator, including one where nurses were told they would be punished if they had water bottles at their work stations. They said staff are now facing mandatory overtime.
Cabin Radio has not independently reviewed the messages.
A third nurse said there had been a “barrage” of emails over the past year.
“Whoever’s in charge right now tends to treat the nurses kind-of like children,” they said.
“It seems like every policy that comes down is another roadblock for us to have time off or another roadblock for us to have work-life balance.”
The nurses said that approach had caused some staff to leave the hospital for employment elsewhere. Some are choosing to leave the territory entirely, they said.
“The overall morale in the whole building is terrible,” one nurse described.
“It’s really bad,” another nurse said. “I’ve never seen the morale the way it is.”
The nurses say they want better leadership and clear, common-sense guidelines that are applied to everyone. One nurse said it would help if administrators showed appreciation for front-line staff and the challenges they face.
A spokesperson for the territorial health authority told Cabin Radio the hospital follows government policies regarding human resources and respectful, harassment-free workplaces. They said staff should report specific concerns to their manager, the chief operating officer, the chief executive officer, or through an “anonymous feedback mechanism.”
The Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut declined to provide comment for this report.
Turnover in general surgeons
One nurse expressed concern that, as of July 1, there will be no permanent surgeons at the hospital, meaning Stanton will be reliant on locum staff for associated services.
“We’re in serious worry that we might not be able to have ICU [intensive care unit] services or an operating service,” the nurse said. “You’re putting people’s lives at risk.”
The nurse said surgeons are currently willing to come to the NWT on a locum basis as non-emergency services have closed in provinces like Ontario and Alberta. After the pandemic ends, however, the nurse fears that won’t be the case.
“Physicians all over Canada are struggling to pay the bills and pay their staff during the pandemic because they’re fee-for-service and they’re not seeing people,” the nurse said.
“We haven’t had a shortage of anyone coming up, but they’re not able to do all the things that we need them to do up here – so surgeries are being cancelled because of that.”
The health authority confirmed the hospital is “currently seeing turnover in our general surgery unit.” The spokesperson said one surgeon recently retired, another is leaving in July, and a third is on parental leave until late 2021 or early 2022.
The authority noted the two departing surgeons will provide locum services in the future. The authority is actively recruiting for the vacant positions. Several prospective new hires have been booked for site visits and to provide locum services through the spring and summer.
In the meantime, the authority said, it has “access to a pool of long-term physicians who already know our system” and capacity is guaranteed for the next several months.