Emergency rooms in rural Nova Scotia hospitals are at risk of being forced to close because of a lack of nurses unless the province changes its current policy regarding call-in shifts.
“We’re coming into the summer where we have huge challenges around staffing to begin with,” said Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union.
Speaking to reporters during a break in the union’s annual general meeting in Truro, Hazelton said a policy change put in place in February by the provincial health authority has prompted nurses to refuse to accept call-ins to cover Saturday shifts because they are no longer being paid overtime for the extra work.
“And, because of this change, many of our nurses are not picking up extra shifts. So, the staffing has become almost impossible,” she said.
Nurses work 12-hour shifts for a total of 75 hours every two weeks and prior to February, they were paid overtime if they were called in for an extra shift outside that rotation. Now, however, if a nurse takes a vacation day or a sick day within their rotation and then is called in to work a Saturday shift for another nurse, they no longer receive the overtime pay.
“If this practice continues I fear that we won’t be able to staff our facilities,” she said. “Those nurses in there told us this morning they will not be picking up extra shifts. And they won’t.”
If another nurse cannot be found to fill the vacant shift, that forces another on-duty nurse to do it, which then results in a 24-hour work day.
Hazelton said the province’s four health unions have filed a grievance on the matter and she has also proposed a temporary solution.
“And the proposal that I have discussed with, actually both the minister and the premier, was that they put that in abeyance, so go back to the way it was until an arbitrator makes a ruling on it,” Hazelton said. “So that when the arbitration’s heard, it will be settled once and for all.”
She also pressed Delorey in front of the conference members (including approximately 290 nurses and nursing students) for a yes or no response by the end of AGM on Thursday.
Delorey told reporters he has not had a chance to seek legal advice on the proposal, which arrived at his office last Friday.
“And if that does line up, then we’d certainly be looking to move forward and encourage the employer (the health authority) to move forward with it,” Delorey said.
“But at the same time, you look forward to a path forward that shows good faith among the parties.”
The minister said his “top priority” is to ensure that nursing shifts are covered.
“Really at the heart of all this, where my concern really rests, is ensuring that the health authorities are taking the steps they need to take to ensure that they are covering shifts and making sure that the care for Nova Scotians in our hospital system is what we expect it to be.”
Delorey said he has not seen any financial data to indicate whether the new policy has provided cost savings for the authority.
Hazelton, however, said she believes the proposal put before the government would be cost neutral because a nurse who is forced to work a double shift when no one else is available, is receiving the overtime anyway.
“And if those nurses are not willing to pick up extra shifts because of this change, then we won’t be able to staff. It’s that simple, we can barely staff now.”
Beyond the risk of having hospitals shut down because nurses are not available, she said, is the toll that 24-hours shifts are having on nurses and the risk it provides to patient care.
“It’s not good. Anybody working 24 hours, that’s not ideal. Pilots aren’t allowed to, bus drivers aren’t allowed to, truck drivers aren’t allowed to but nurses can,” Hazelton said. “We need to get together, we need to collaborate, we need to come up with solutions. We can’t sustain a system like this.”