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Op Ed: The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on our dedicated nurses. To retain them, we need to offer fair compensation

by Dianne Martin

Of late, there has a been a common and recurring theme to my conversation with nurses.

Quite a few are seriously considering leaving the profession, and others are feeling burnt out, frustrated and undervalued. It’s understandable given the heartbreak and pressure nurses have faced. COVID-19 was a reality-check for Ontario’s health system, particularly its long-term care (LTC) sector.

It’s clear more needs to be done to address the systemic challenges that have plagued the sector and resulted in more than 3,798 deaths in LTC and retirement homes in the province during the pandemic. Ensuring the right staff are in place to meet the needs of residents is a critical part of that effort.

So, last October, when Ontario first announced a $3 per hour temporary pandemic pay increase to help retain personal support workers (PSWs) in the health system, registered practical nurses (RPNs) applauded the move. RPNs provide care across our health system and are the largest category of nurses delivering care in LTC homes. Many supervise PSWs and understand their challenging role.

RPNs trusted that the same government that regularly referred to nurses as heroes would equally recognize them for the leadership and knowledge-based care they provide alongside PSWs. But that recognition has yet to come.

The province has extended the PSW temporary wage twice, with it currently set to expire in August. Yet, there has been no word about any additional support for RPNs. This has left many RPNs questioning their future in nursing given the growing workload, stress and accountabilities they face. In fact, a WeRPN survey from early this year found that one in three RPNs are currently considering leaving the profession at a time when they are desperately needed.

While RPNs welcome the government’s efforts to invest, improve staffing and implement reforms in the LTC sector, well-intentioned policies that recognize — and compensate — one health-care worker over the other are fuelling tension among teams and now pose a risk to our province’s already tenuous nursing workforce.

COVID-19 has highlighted systemic issues in our health system, particularly in the LTC sector, that nurses have been calling attention to for years: wage inequity, staffing shortages, lack of sick-pay, meagre full-time opportunities and more. Over the past several years, the RPN role has grown with the expansion of education and responsibilities — but wages have not kept pace.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on these dedicated nurses. Failing to recognize their vital contributions with similar financial supports as those given to the PSWs may be the last straw for many.

Ontario can’t afford to lose RPNs. The government needs to implement proactive policies that help retain these knowledgeable health professionals in our system before it’s too late.

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