Healthcare workers who have asked for backdated pandemic hazard pay won’t be getting it, the NWT’s health minister said on Wednesday.
The demand for hazard pay, in the form of a $4-an-hour wage increase backdated to March 2020, was central to a letter sent by hospital workers to ministers and MLAs at the start of November.
While the territorial government says it is taking steps to address a mounting crisis of morale at Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital and beyond, the NWT’s health minister flatly ruled out backdated hazard pay at a news conference on Wednesday.
“We are not currently considering a retroactive pay increase to March 2020,” Julie Green told reporters.
“The collective agreement of which the nurses are part provides a 1.5-percent increase for all workers in the last fiscal year. And in this fiscal year, we do have a mechanism at our disposal called a labour market supplement. And we are investigating whether we can provide additional compensation to make salaries more attractive to people coming here as permanent hires.
“That is something that is under consideration, but I have nothing more to say on that at this point.”
On Wednesday, NWT health authority chief executive Kim Riles said one in five nursing positions across the territory is currently vacant.
“We are seeing half as many applicants on our positions as we have historically, and the availability of casual staff to backstop some of those vacancies is becoming less and less,” Riles said, adding six community health centres have reduced their services and four are providing emergency services only.
“We’re talking a lot about Stanton, but this is actually a system-wide challenge.”
Nurses and other healthcare workers at the hospital maintain the pay they’re requesting is in line with that offered to people in similar positions across the rest of Canada.
Speaking to Cabin Radio earlier this week, two nurses – who requested anonymity to discuss their employer’s actions – said they were “dismayed” at the response from the territory to their initial letter.
The nurses say many millions of dollars spent by the NWT government’s Covid-19 Secretariat, and received from the federal government in relief funding, should have included increased financial support for front-line workers.
They argue the absence of any new compensation is partly why the health authority is now struggling to attract and retain staff.
“They spent all this money on stuff they already had infrastructure for,” one nurse said, referring to the establishment of the Covid-19 Secretariat.
The territorial government has rejected that characterization, arguing the secretariat centralizes areas like enforcement and communications that were previously being handled by employees across departments who already had full workloads.
Nurses write to MP
Even so, registered nurses at Stanton this week wrote to the NWT’s Liberal MP, Michael McLeod, to demand that Ottawa intervene.
Nurses told McLeod the NWT health minister had “inadequately addressed” their concerns, adding they believed “the federal funding was spent irresponsibly by the Government of the Northwest Territories.”
The letter listed a range of Covid-19 Secretariat positions and the annual salaries associated with them, mostly six-figure sums for positions that the nurses argue were not near the front lines.
Their letter concludes: “Staff are leaving or considering leaving because of the many concerns that have not been addressed by management, the union, or our government. This is a tipping point for our healthcare system. Nurses have not been listened to and do not feel valued by their employers.”
In an emailed response, McLeod wrote: “I have previously raised the staffing issues related to Stanton with the federal Minister of Health’s office and shared the concerns of constituents regarding the reduction of obstetrics services.
“While the management and delivery of health care is an area of territorial responsibility, I am committed to working with partners at all levels to find solutions that improve quality of work and quality of care in the Northwest Territories.”
Few new hires coming in
Green says she has met with the Union of Northern Workers regarding morale among healthcare workers.
Regarding this month’s shutdown of many obstetrics services in Yellowknife – the most visible manifestation of the NWT health system’s travails – the minister said a team of managers is now “looking at the current operational issues in detail, including staffing levels, shift schedules, and workload, aiming to find the quickest path to service resumption with a focus on long-term sustainability of services.”
“The department will also be working directly with the Department of Finance,” she said, “to discuss the options available to ensure our current staff stay with us and that we remain nationally competitive when recruiting staff.”
According to Green, advertising since June via national nursing recruitment sites has only resulted in seven applications and one hire. A staffing agency hired in October has found three more nurses “with varying start dates and contracts still being confirmed.”
An appeal for help from other provinces and territories resulted in not one additional nurse, Green said.
According to Riles, that’s because a long-predicted national nursing shortage is now upon the country – making it hard for the health authority to respond, even if the underlying issues are considered by staff to be at least partly the territory’s own doing.
“Hiring nurses, and specialized nurses in particular, has never been more competitive,” Riles said. “We’ve seen a precipitous drop in applicants and successful hires for our positions. Our system has also seen a drop in interest from casual staff, which have always played a critical role in covering the gaps, covering leave and other staffing shortages. This has become particularly acute coming up to the holiday period.
“My strong commitment is that we will do what we need to do to work together, to repair relationships where necessary, and to ensure we can work collaboratively on solutions and improvements for everyone involved.
“Ultimately, improving the work-life balance for our staff – improving their experience as employees – will lead to better care for our patients and our clients.”