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OCHU Secretary Treasurer, Sharon Richer and OCHU Vice President, David Verch, address media at Queen's Park on January 3rd, 2024. Photo courtesy of CP24.

Union Calls for Increased Provincial Funding to Address Staffing and Retention Crisis in Ontario Hospitals

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
and
and
January 3, 2024
Union Calls for Increased Provincial Funding to Address Staffing and Retention Crisis in Ontario Hospitals
OCHU Secretary Treasurer, Sharon Richer and OCHU Vice President, David Verch, address media at Queen's Park on January 3rd, 2024. Photo courtesy of CP24.

According to a new poll, nearly 70% of hospital workers who responded feel that Ontario’s healthcare system is not staffed at a level which would allow them to deliver high quality patient care.

This feeling arises from a number of areas of concern and include staffing shortages, retention, and funding for the healthcare sector in this province which is leading to increases in wait times for surgeries as well as ER closures across Ontario. 

According to a press release from CUPE Ontario, the poll was conducted by Nanos and surveyed 750 hospital workers out of the approximately 50,000 staff members represented by the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU). 

In response to the poll’s findings, representatives of Ontario’s hospital unions are calling on increased provincial funding amounting to $1.25B per year over the next four years to fund increases to full time staff positions, system capacity, and structural concerns related to overwork in Ontario hospitals.  

During a press conference at Queen’s Park on Wednesday (January 3rd) Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of CUPE/OCHU), noted that workers are finding it increasingly difficult to provide the care that they are trained to provide and that two in every five hospital worker is considering leaving the profession.

“No matter how hard they work, no matter how many breaks, they skip, and they stay behind their regular hours – it is not enough,” Richer said. “This situation has caused a high prevalence of moral injury as nurses PSWs and others are feeling acute distress knowing that they are operating in a system designed to fail.”

Richer noted, citing Stats Canada data, that since March 2020, staffing levels have increased by a mere 0.4% which she deemed “grossly insufficient” especially when considering the level of turnover in recent years which sits at 10% and has left 19,000 vacancies across the sector. 

The dual issue of acute staffing and retention crises, Richer suggested, is “tied to the declining  quality of patient care” and is illustrated in the growing number of ER closures in Ontario and contributes to long surgical waitlists being witnessed across the province.

In June of 2023, the permanent closure of the ER in the town of Minden by the Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) without any public consultation was tied to staffing levels at the ER while at the same time Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC) has reported a staffing shortage of around 500 in order to keep up with future demand.

“The entire system depends on [their] labor,” Richer said, “and yet their concerns are continued to be overlooked.”

A major implication of the data gained from the poll is the impact that these staffing shortages are having on the mental health of hospital workers across the province, with 62% saying that they exhausted by their work while nearly half (49%) reporting that they have anxiety, and 41% claiming that they dread going to work. 

David Verch, first vice-president of OCHU and a public sector RPN of over 35 years reiterated the two key issues facing the healthcare sector in Ontario: compensation and workload.

In order to address these, he suggested a series of proposals which the union suggests would help “begin the long process of healing our healthcare system after prolonged cuts and closures.”

Compensation for healthcare workers is a key concern for workers, especially following the implementation of the unconstitutional Bill 124 which capped public sector wage increases at 1% per year and limited workers rights to freedom of association by limiting their ability to collectively bargain fair wages.

“Over half of the workers polled by Nanos said they are dissatisfied with their compensation,” Verch said. “This figure would no doubt be higher if Doug Ford had his way and Bill 124 was still in effect. Even as hospital workers receive wage increases in nominal terms, after Bill 124 was ruled unconstitutional, their real incomes have declined due to inflation.”

In terms of workloads, Verch outlined the need for staff to patient ratios in Ontario all hospital departments including ICUs, ERs, maternity wards, and rehab clinics and is a framework that he has been bargaining for with the Ontario Hospital Association.

Last year saw British Columbia become the first Canadian province to suggest the implementation of staffing ratios following an agreement with the Nurses’ Bargaining Association and that province’s Ministry of Health. Staffing ratios set rules around how many patients a nurse can care for at once in specific departments and contexts within hospitals. 

Additionally, there is a need for increasing the number of fulltime healthcare positions so that workers aren’t forced out of the sector due to their inability to find meaningful work.

“Adding staff is invaluable, but we also know that stability and continuity of care is vital in hospital settings,” he told reporters. “That requires more full time staff. Currently, only 50% of OCHU members in hospitals have full time status. We are proposing an increase in that [percentage] to 70% over a five year period. This will enable better care and also have helped tackle the retention and recruitment challenge.”

The improvement of staffing levels, the increase in full time positions, and increasing capacity in our healthcare system, Verch concluded, will require an influx of $1.25B annually over the next four years, on top of inflation.

“We think it's a very reasonable ask when we find ourselves in an unprecedented crisis,” Verch concluded.

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