When it was clear there were not going to be enough nurses to fully staff all of the emergency rooms, intensive care units and COVID-19 wards during the pandemic, the Progressive Conservative government came up with a plan: a $6-per-hour premium for any nurse willing to go directly to the front lines of critical care.
The pay bump was available to any nurse who redeployed to an ER, ICU, personal care home or designated COVID-19 unit, and for nurses working in any facility where a COVID-19 outbreak was declared.
Although government should be commended for taking action, it's pretty clear now — some nine months after it was announced — the wage premium has backfired in spectacular fashion.
The premium had two main goals: convince appropriately trained nurses to transfer into critical-care settings, while luring part-time or private-care nurses to bolster overall staffing levels.
Although the hourly bump did encourage some nurses to redeploy, it was not enough to fully staff critical-care units. It was, however, just enough to create shortages in other areas.
You can see the evidence of the government's strategic miscalculation all over the health-care system.
The NDP released statistics this summer showing that six months after the wage premium was made available, 25 per cent of critical-care nursing positions remained vacant. That is largely why so many critical-care nurses are being forced to work double shifts, or work seven days a week. It's a situation that is starting to take its toll on nursing resources.
This week, CBC reported seven nurses in the St. Boniface COVID-19 unit, and an unspecified number at Health Sciences Centre, had resigned because they were burned out from working too many hours. Going back further, it's worth noting Manitoba was the only province in Canada that had to transfer ICU patients to other jurisdictions, largely because of a nursing shortage.
At the same time, shortages have sprung up outside the critical-care setting. Boundary Trails Health Centre, which is located between Winkler and Morden, was recently forced to close 10 beds because of a shortage of nurses. Surgical wait lists, lengthened by pandemic restrictions, are growing even longer because of a limited number of surgical nurses.
The worst part is that government was warned it wasn't going to work, and it went ahead anyway.
"We told them what was going to happen and they ignored us," said Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union.
The MNU did want nurses on the front lines to be properly compensated, particularly since all nurses have been working without a contract for more than five years, she said. However, Jackson cautioned the wage bump on its own wasn't going to encourage nurses who are working fewer hours, or who have left the system altogether, to put aside their distrust of this government — distrust that was created by a botched effort to reorganize the Winnipeg hospital system.
Five years ago, former premier Brian Pallister unleashed a plan to close three smaller ERs and beef up resources at four others to provide a better overall level of care. It was a promising idea that was crippled by two massive mistakes in strategy.
First, Pallister cut funding to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and slowed increases to the system in general to battle the budget deficit. Second, he failed to get the nurses onside with his plan.
With about 14,000 nurses in the province, there are theoretically enough bodies to fill every shift in every facility in the province. But over the years, nurses have won the right to work as much as they want, where they want, when they want. The Pallister government decided to bully nurses, rather than work with them to find solutions.
And it certainly didn't help that Pallister essentially refused to negotiate a new contract with the nurses and tens of thousands of other provincial public servants.
What would alleviate the nurses shortage? Other than the wage bump, the only solution mentioned by Health Minister Audrey Gordon has been an increase in the number of spots in nursing programs. That's sort of like putting a brand new sprinkler system into a house that's already burned to the ground: too little, too late.
You can bet that mobilizing more nurses to work more hours will be a major topic of discussion in contract talks, which are currently in mediation. According to Jackson, the key to unleashing more resources is rebuilding trust.
Jackson said the province will need to demonstrate it respects the right of nurses to maintain control over their working lives. That will mean enhancing shift flexibility while paying a fair and competitive salary.
Jackson acknowledged there is no guarantee a new contract along with greater shift flexibility would translate into more nurses who are prepared to work more hours. However, she said that efforts to force nurses to redeploy from unit to unit, hospital to hospital, isn't getting the job done either.
"It is going to take a leap of faith on the government's part," she said. "We just have to acknowledge there is a shortage and we have to find a way to deal with it."
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.