Nobody knows how many better-paid ‘agency nurses’ work in Canada’s hospitals: union

A nurses’ union boss wants the Auditor General of Canada to find out how many privately contracted nurses are working for health authorities across the country, doing the same job as their staff counterparts while being paid far more.

Linda Silas of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions asked Karen Hogan to conduct the review with auditors in each province to determine whether recruitment and retention of nurses is being undermined by higher wages high that entrepreneurs receive.

Contract nurses are ultimately paid with public funds, even if they work for private agencies.

“The astronomical increase in the use of nurses employed by private agencies in recent years represents a significant and potentially dangerous challenge to the sustainability of our public health care system,” she said in a letter to Hogan, who has the power to audit the territories, which do not have their own auditor general.

Silas wants to know the average pay rates for agency nurses in each jurisdiction.

“It’s about following the money,” she said in an interview.

“Right now, we have thousands and thousands of vacancies, and provinces and territories are scrambling to find appropriate retention and recruitment strategies.

British Columbia this week announced plans to fast-track the accreditation of internationally educated nurses, who would also be eligible for various financial aids, such as scholarships to improve their English skills.

Ontario and Manitoba, for example, have also implemented measures to attract nurses trained outside the country.

Yan Michaud, a spokesman for Hogan’s office, said the letter was received Thursday, but it was too early to respond.

The federation also expected to ask nurses this week to complete a survey about why they work for agencies or would consider doing so, Silas said.

The upsides can include higher pay, flexible hours and greater mobility, she said, while the downsides can be a lack of benefits or job security.

“We say to every employer, you have to reach out to every nurse who says, ‘I’m going to leave, either to work for an agency or to work somewhere else. Ask: ‘What will it take to keep you?’

Aman Grewal, president of the BC Nurses Union, said many health care nurses welcome agency counterparts who can lighten heavy workloads.

Meanwhile, Vancouver-area or Vancouver Island nurses could temporarily work for an agency in places like Nunavut or Fort St. John, Grewal said.

But she said that wasn’t an ideal scenario.

“It’s a bit of a steal-Peter-to-pay-Paul situation, because if they leave an employer to go do agency nursing, we’re still at a net loss.”

Union members say they receive significantly more pay as private contractors than as nurses, sometimes $25 more an hour, Grewal said. Those trained in emergency care may also prefer the autonomy offered in remote communities, she added.

However, the pay gap can be divisive, she said.

“This pay gap for doing the same job is something that the (staff) nurses don’t like. However, at the end of the day, nurses are very happy to have someone working alongside them, so that they are not working alone.

Work-life balance is one of the biggest reasons nurses leave jobs for contract work, Grewal said.

Although nurses working up to 16-hour shifts may be compensated with more days off, many new hires prefer the regularity of an eight-hour workday.

Employers should ask nurses for more information about what kind of schedules they are willing to accept, she said.

The need for agency nurses would drop significantly if more people wanting to enter the profession worked in wards instead of languishing on waiting lists to get into nursing schools, Grewal said.

“Even throughout the pandemic, they wanted to become nurses,” she said.

The BC government recently added 602 student nursing positions, but Grewal said that needs to be increased quickly because it will take new students years to start working as demand continues to grow.

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