As nurses in Yellowknife speak out against what they say are unfair policies that benefit locum workers over resident staff, an Inuvik MLA says it’s a longtime issue that has driven nursing shortages across the territory.
Nurses at Stanton Territorial Hospital say locum healthcare staff are being deemed essential workers but staff who live in the NWT are not, Cabin Radio reported earlier this week.
That means resident staff who return from out-of-territory travel are required to use vacation time to stay at home and isolate – with few exceptions – while locum staff arriving from the same parts of Canada are able to go to the hospital to work.
Health minister Julie Green on Wednesday told reporters she was aware of nurses’ dissatisfaction with the policy.
“These are not new concerns,” she said. “I’ve received them from the staff directly and we’ve attempted to address them. We still need to do some more of that work.”
According to Green, the territorial health authority and Stanton managers have established a working group with the Union of Northern Workers to investigate and find solutions to the complaints.
“We want to find remedies so these nurses, who feel the isolation requirements are not fair to them, have their concerns addressed,” she said.
NWT health officials have strongly discouraged non-essential travel outside the territory during the pandemic, but it is not prohibited.
Lesa Semmler, a longtime nurse and the MLA for Inuvik Boot Lake, said nurses concerns’ have more to do with fairness than travel.
“You’re there with people that are flying in and out whenever they choose to and you’re stuck there,” she said, adding that not being able to see family or take a break from work for months is a mental health issue.
Semmler told Cabin Radio there have long been additional benefits for locum nurses in the NWT that she believes have discouraged some from becoming permanent workers in the North.
“It’s not a Covid issue. It’s an ongoing issue,” she said. “I think it’s one of the main issues that has created the situation that we’re in now with utilizing locums.”
When she started her career in nursing more than a decade ago, Semmler said, the territory didn’t rely as heavily on locum staff as it does now. She said retention benefits for permanent nurses were scrapped as the territory felt they were ineffective.
“That’s when we just started seeing more and more nurses leave,” Semmler said.
“The cost of living is too high and they rely on these little perks that compensated them for being here as an essential worker.”
Semmler noted that locum nurses have their flights to and from the territory paid for. They get to choose when they work in the NWT and they pay cheaper rent because they stay in nursing residences.
Permanent staff, meanwhile, can be denied holidays due to operational requirements. Unlike most other government employees, they may have to work on statutory holidays and during the annual period between Christmas and New Year colloquially known in the NWT as “Donny Days,” when most GNWT staff are on mandatory leave.
Semmler said while locum staff are important and valued in the NWT, there are benefits to having permanent staff.
“When you sign on as an indeterminate nurse, you’re here, you take up a home, you become part of the community,” she said, adding the territory does not have a local relief pool of healthcare staff.
“If you have family, your kids become part of the community. People know you, they begin to trust you.”
There have long been issues with healthcare staffing shortages in the North. In July 2019, for example, dozens of nursing positions were vacant at the then-new Stanton hospital, and medical appointments were limited in Behchokǫ̀ due to a nurse shortage.
Semmler said when she was the manager of acute care services for the Inuvik Regional Hospital, a position for an indeterminate nurse went unfilled for almost two years and the hospital was reliant on locums for the role.