When she checked in with local nurses in Williams Lake Tuesday during a tour of the Thompson North Okanagan, B.C. Nursing Union president Debra McPherson heard “it’s tough out there.”
“I think the one impression I was left with was the same as with some of the other smaller communities in this area and that was maintaining adequate staffing levels is really challenging,” McPherson told the Tribune. “They’re often left working short, working overtime, double shifts and it’s very difficult for the nurses under those circumstances to be sure that they are providing good care.”
McPherson visited nurses working in the provincial government offices, at the hospital, Deni House and Seniors Village.
“It was true everywhere I visited,” she said.
In its most recent contract, the union agreed to moving from a 36 hour to a 37.5 hour work week so the employer could claim some productivity gains.
“That involved a change in everybody’s work rotation and it’s been tough getting everyone’s schedules going,” she explained.
“But the employer’s not holding up their end of the deal. In exchange for us doing this they were to increase the number of nurses, that they would provide vacation backfill for our members, and that if people were off sick they would be replaced.”
That’s not happening so the nurses are feeling like they are working more hours and not receiving the help they need.
In 100 Mile House Monday, McPherson learned there is one registered nurse covering well over 60 patients in a long-term care facility.
“She has one LPN helping her, and some care aids. That’s not sufficient when you’ve got seniors with a much heavier chronic disease load than they had before, when there’s dementia, aggression and psycho geriatrics. It’s stressing those nurses considerably.”
Some of it is legitimate on the employer’s part, McPherson said.
“It is hard to recruit nurses to isolated, small rural communities, but on the other hand, they need to work on incentive packages to get young people to come and work in those communities and stay there.”
People want regular employment with benefits, and will not move to a community for a casual position, she added.
“When we get a chance to talk with the Minister of Health that’s one of the things we’ll be addressing. We really need to see government and the employer reciprocate and acknowledge the nurses are working more hours.”
Nurses are terrified there will be more cutbacks, she added. Health authorities are being told the increase to their budgets will be two per cent next year, and McPherson said six per cent increases made things difficult.
“There were layoffs with six per cent, this year they were increasing it by four per cent, so employers are cutting back even more. We have the lowest cost of health care per patient in B.C. because we’re staffing so poorly.”
The costs will be paid for in other ways, such as nurse burnout, illness, injury and turnover.
“I don’t know what will happen if the government gives them two per cent next year. The health authorities will not be able to manage. It won’t cover inflation and it won’t cover population growth.”
Tracy Quewezanc, regional chair for BCNU Thompson North Okanagan, said there’s an overall theme of overcapacity and understaffing.
“There could be multiple reasons for that. If they don’t supply enough casuals or prebook those casuals in advance. Or it could be that people aren’t getting hired on.”
Retaining new graduates is a challenge, Quewezanc said, adding 18 months is the point where nurses decided if they will stay in a community or not.
“I hear from them regularly that it’s not how they thought it was going to be. They feel overwhelmed and don’t have as much support as they need. Other nurses would be mentoring and helping them, but they are run off their feet.”
The nursing shortage is worldwide and will only get worse, she warned.
For a response from the Ministry of Health see the Tuesday, Aug. 20, edition of the Tribune.