'They deserve to be treated better, compared to nurses who fly in and out.'

Staff nurses feel undervalued, shortchanged by pay policy


It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Government of Nunavut values the work done by short-term contractors over that done by its full-time, indeterminate employees.

At least, it must seem that way if you're a nurse.

Nunavut depends on recruitment agencies to hire nurses from the South for short terms, often for a month but sometimes as short as one week, to cover the territory's nursing shortage. But the higher salaries and perks enjoyed by agency nurses may be hurting Nunavut's ability to keep nurses in the territory.

Two staff nurses recently gave up jobs at Baffin Regional Hospital. They plan to return north this fall – as agency ­nurses.

"The message is – I don't want to say it, but – contract," says Doug Workman, president of the Nunavut Employees Union. "It's encouraging it. I don't know why."

The NEU's shots at the government over its treatment of nurses come shortly before the fourth round of negotiations for a collective agreement, Oct. 1 to 5. The government's proposed pay schedule is to be revealed at that time.

Agency nurses make substantially more money than staff nurses. They pay no rent and receive free flights from Nunavut to the South. They even receive an allowance for meals.

Workman says he knows of one agency nurse who earned an additional $50,000 compared to working for the government, while working significantly fewer hours. "It's a lot of cash," he says.

No wonder, Workman says, that half of the nurses in the Baffin region work for agencies.

It's unclear how much money Nunavut spends on agency nurses. The department of health and social services did not return calls before the deadline of Nunatsiaq News.

But Cheryl Young, president of Nunavut Nurses Local 003, says, in one extreme example, it cost the GN $32,000 to sign one agency nurse from Ventures Healthcare to work one month in the Baffin Regional Hospital.

The agency nurse would only receive a fraction of that money. Still, the $10,000 to $15,000 that Young estimates the agency nurse would receive for a single month's work is more than double what a staff nurse would receive. Staff nurses in Nunavut take home anywhere between $3,200 to $5,200 a month.

The big remaining slice of the $32,000 goes to the agency, which, Young says, is "taking huge pots of money out of the territory."

Documents obtained by Nunatsiaq News are less dramatic, but still show agency nurses cost a lot of money. One agency nurse cost Nunavut more than $7,000 for two weeks of work.

Some staff nurses are paid less than other government employees who only have a Grade 12 education, despite the fact that nurses need four years of post-secondary education, as well as certification to work in the territory.

And most GN employees don't face working conditions that include being bitten, scratched and spat at. (See story, page 7.)

Young says it's no surprise that two recent graduates of Nunavut's nursing program quit their jobs as nurses to take more lucrative jobs with government.

Premier Paul Okalik recently acknowledged staff nurses need better treatment.

"We have to treat our long-term nurses a little better," Okalik said earlier this month. "They deserve to be treated better, compared to nurses who fly in and out, and may not be of much benefit to the community."

However, Workman says Nunavut continued negotiations last week with the same pricey firm that rented Nunavut a nurse for a single month for $32,000.

This spring the government allocated $1.5 million to cover the increased costs of hiring agency nurses in a supplementary appropriation bill. Workman says the government would do better to spend that money on improving benefits of being a staff nurse in the territory.

This month staff nurses and other government employees in Iqaluit saw their rents increase by 20 per cent, as part of the government's attempt to create a housing market by cutting the rent subsidies of its employees.

"Frustrated," "devalued," and "demoralized" are some words used by Young to describe how staff nurses feel about how they are treated by their employer compared to agency nurses.

So is "pissed off."

Staff nurses tend to be older than agency nurses. They often have families, and don't relish the idea of being uprooted from their community. They work for the government because Nunavut is their home. And they get a pension. But Young says a growing number of staff nurses feel overworked and undervalued.

"We're on edge all the time," she says. "We're doing our best, but we're drowning."

And if older nurses go, that leaves young nurses with few mentors.

"If we lose all our old birds and old dolls, the system falls apart even quicker."

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