Faced with a shortage of nursing staff as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, some Ontario hospitals have turned to a simple incentive to entice nurses back into the ER: cash bonuses.
Ottawa’s Queensway Carleton Hospital is offering up to $10,000 to some nurses who qualify for the incentive program, who agree to work for at least a year. The Windsor Regional Hospital is offering up to $75,000 in bonuses to new nurses from outside Canada or outside Ontario.
“The incentives are province of Ontario incentives that we’re advertising for nurses, and they were put in place by the province to help attract out-of-province the nurses into Ontario or to reactivate retired nurses,” said Greg Hedgecoe, vice president of people, performance improvement and diagnostic services at Queensway Carleton Hospital.
“And the reason why is because in Ontario, we’re facing a critical nursing workforce shortage.”
According to recent Statistics Canada data, the health care and social assistance sector had more job vacancies than any other sector in January 2021. Health care workers also reported working more hours in April 2021, compared even to the first wave of the pandemic in April 2020.
Programs like Queensway Carleton’s are funded by the Ontario government. A handful of provinces also offer bonuses to nurses who choose to work in rural communities. P.E.I. also has recruitment programs that offer bonuses to attract nurses to the province.
Some nurses aren’t sure that cash incentives really work, though.
“They’re a short-term Band-Aid for a long-term problem,” said Dr. Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.
Bonuses are good, but not enough to fix the problems that nurses are facing right now, said Eram Chhogala, a registered nurse who works in emergency trauma services at the Scarborough Health Network and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
“I think that offering an incentive is a nice idea, but it doesn’t fully change the way that we’re going to be experiencing the pandemic,” she said. “It covers costs, which is good, but it doesn’t heal anything else. It doesn’t heal the emotional burden. It doesn’t heal the emotional trauma that a lot of front liners have had to experience.”
Grinspun worries about the pandemic’s effects on the profession. While more people have enrolled at nursing schools, she said, surveys conducted by her organization show that many nurses — particularly those at the beginning or end of their careers — are thinking of leaving when the pandemic ends.
“I am afraid if we do not do something absolutely urgently — and no, it’s not bonuses — that we will see a collapse of the nursing profession like never seen in this province or this country.”
Helping to pay for professional development and certifications, making it easier to recognize foreign credentials, and improving base pay — not just bonuses — would help to retain nurses, she said.
Improving working conditions at hospitals would help nurses stay too, Chhogala said, pointing to things like ensuring access to personal protective equipment — which was an issue at the beginning of the pandemic — and having more capacity in hospitals to withstand the volumes of seriously ill patients they’re seeing.
The fact that hospitals are giving out bonuses to employees just shows what’s been happening to nurses, she said.
“It’s the fact that they have to use a cash incentive to pull people back into the profession because they’re so burnt out and they’re leaving,” she said.
“I think that has a lot to say about what’s been going on with a lot of nurses personally and professionally.”