Chronic understaffing of BC nurses: The campaign and its challenges

By Daniel Tseghay

Across British Columbia, an anticipated 1,643 full-time registered nurses (RNs) and registered practical nurses (RPNs) are scheduled to be hired by March 31st. That’s the plan, at least, based on a partnership between the BC Nurses Union (BCNU), the province’s Ministry of Health, six regional health authorities, the Provincial Health Services Authority, and the Health Employees’ Union.

These new positions were initially scheduled to be in place by now as part of the now-expired 2012-14 Nurses Bargaining Association collective agreement. Both the government and the BCNU are currently in negotiations.

While there’s been an increase in the number of trained nurses in B.C., the jobs have yet to materialize. Understaffing, long work hours, unexpected overtime, frequent on-call shifts, and shortages in key areas are increasingly common. The chronic understaffing was even an issue that sent the province and the BCNU to arbitration. Of equal importance is that an estimated 30 per cent of all working nurses are casual employees, or about 7,000 across the province. This is the highest ratio of casual nurses in Canada.VanSun

The plan to hire over 1,600 new nurses is not without challenges, and even conflicts with the BCNU collective agreement, specifically language around the period of time a job must be posted. And this is not the first time an ambitious promise to hire more nurses went unfulfilled. NDP health critic Judy Darcy noted the 2012 promise to hire 2,000 nurses with only 500 being hired so far.

But these hurdles are not deterring the authors of this campaign. The partners have hired HealthMatch BC to organize a recruitment campaign, and the BCNU is notifying its members that work casual shifts of permanent jobs and are connecting them with the health authorities that are doing the hiring and are funding the new positions. In some northern areas there are even more proactive measures like hiring new graduates so nursing staff can get further training in speciality and unstaffed areas. Housing allowances are being offered to to nurses moving to the north from other communities.

What all this means for the long-term future of nurses is an open discussion. While these jobs can be funded by the existing budgets of health authorities, there is a persisting issue of provincial funding for health care in an age for privatization. But this announcement will likely bring relief to many workers and give many some breathing room while deeper changes are made. “To the nurses working 16-hour shifts today, to the nurses working short in the emergency department and operating rooms across B.C., to community nurses with overwhelming caseloads,” said BCNU president Gayle Duteil says, “this agreement means relief is on the way.

At least this is one union’s angle on the chronic understaffing. Another union that represents nurses, the Health Sciences Association (HSA), has issued a strong criticism of this campaign. The HSA notes that it was excluded from the negotiations between the BCNU and the government and that the process violates the collective agreement which applies to all nurses, regardless of the union.

“Within our membership, we have close to a thousand registered psychiatric nurses and that classification is spread over several different unions that have nurses within their membership,” says David Durning, Senior Labour Relations Officer at HSA in an interview with “I think everyone’s aware that nurses belong to more than one union and that fact was left out of the discussions that were happening in terms of the hiring process.”

BCNU has even been accused of attempting to raid HSA members at various sites, with the B.C. Labour Relations Board recognizing these actions as such. It is in that context that Durning sees some aspects of the newly-announced campaign.

“It’s clear that the stated goal of the nurses union is that all nurses should belong to that nurses union despite the fact that many nurses already belong to other unions,” says Durning. “It’s another indication that the BCNU doesn’t take into consideration the fact that nurses have made choices to belong to other unions and it’s not appropriate for them to have to share personal information just to be considered in the hiring process with another competing union.”

Accordingly, the HSA is currently challenging the legality of the campaign through the Labour Relations Board.

Whether or not this will hamper BCNU’s campaign is an open discussion. Casual workers, from all unions, are still in need of permanent, full-time work. Raiding might simply not be a primary concern for them, but it could deepen problems facing workers down the road if it is, in fact, true that unions are privileging the workers they represent over the general well-being of healthcare practitioners across the system.



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