Is HR department chasing nurses out of Nunavut?


In Nunavut there is a continual turnover of nurses and an ongoing dependency by the Government of Nunavut on relief staffing drawn from local casuals and contract nurses brought in from southern agencies.

The Registered Nurses Association of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut has more than twice as many nurses registered for Nunavut as there are full-time positions in Nunavut.

Many of these are on short-term contracts (some times as short as two weeks) and they are flown in and out at GN expense, which amounts to the same thing as several VTAs a year.

Unlike full-time GN nurses, agency nurses also receive free accommodation and food. This makes them far more expensive to hire than nurses employed by the government who do not receive any paid trips to the South and must pay for their own accommodation and food.

Of course, the market for nurses is tight, as the GN’s Department of Human Resources points out but, remarkably, they are adding to the problem by offering, what is obviously, a better compensation package to contract nurses than their own nurses.

This does nothing for the morale of GN nurses and it sends an unfortunate message that they are not valued. The GN’s own nurses must wonder if they would not better off working for an agency.

It is always instructive to compare the high-minded goals and objectives of government with how they carry them out and the contrast is most striking in the goals and objectives of the Department of Human Resources and the real world of nurses.

The HR department states that the interests of all the department’s clients are foremost and that the department will operate in a way that promotes fairness and equity. But obviously, there is room for improvement in the treatment of nurses.

According to the Nurse Recruitment Retention Survey published by the NWT-Nunavut registered nurses association in May 2006 and available on their website, there is general dissatisfaction with human resource processes. The survey also says that anecdotal evidence shows a level of frustration with human resources processes from delays in returning calls to lack of respect and unclear or inappropriate information.

The survey shows that, by far, the most important method of recruitment is by word of mouth: 33.8 per cent of nurses indicated that that they were first persuaded to apply for positions in Nunavut by another nurse. It makes no sense, therefore, to treat these most important and effective recruiters with a lack of respect and to subject them to unfair and inequitable compensation.

The GN is right about the labour market for nurses being competitive. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development states that by 2016, Canada will have the worst shortage of nurses of all the OECD countries, with a shortfall of up to 31 per cent for registered nurses needed to meet care demands.

The NWT-Nunavut registered nurses association also reports that a national and international registered nursing staffing crisis of unprecedented proportion is looming. This is fuelled, in part, by an aging nursing population who will be retiring en masse over the next five to 10 years. In Nunavut more than 70 per cent of nurses are over 40.

The HR department needs to be more efficient and creative in how it deals with nurses. In the fall of 2006, seven nurses resigned from the Baffin hospital. HR has only recently advertised some of these positions.

So far, in 2007 three more nurses resigned and it will presumably take the department a long time to fill the vacant positions. Last year five nurses graduated from Nunavut’s own nursing program and became licensed to practice in August but only one was immediately recruited. It took the GN four months to place the remainder.

It is not difficult to imagine how discouraged those Nunavut graduates must have felt, after four years of study, to be forced into non-health-care employment, such as waiting on tables at the Frobisher Inn.

The NWT-Nunavut registered nurses association survey concludes that improvements in the human resources system must become a major focus if any progress is to be made in recruitment and retention issues. In the highly competitive labour market for these vital employees this is a warning that the GN cannot afford to ignore.

The blame for all things cannot be placed on the GN. Recently, I wrote that the delay in the negotiations for a new collective agreement with the GN was due to the departure of the GN’s negotiator. I have since learned that this is not true and that it was the PSAC’s negotiator, because he is busy.

John Bainbridge, Exec Director
Nunavut Employees Union

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