Canada is preparing for the worst as provincial COVID-19 vaccine mandates threaten to plunge the country into a sharp uptick of health and long-term care worker shortages and layoffs.
For hospitals and nursing homes, a shortage of workers would strain the already overburdened workforce dealing with nearly two years of the pandemic. The uncertainty sparked by vaccine mandates underscores the challenges on the road to recovery.
Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare in the Greater Toronto Area, said that Ontario hospitals are already feeling the brunt of these layoffs, resulting in delayed surgeries and medical procedures.
“Unless you’ve got frontline staff to take care of your loved ones, they’re not going to be placed in those beds because there’s nobody there to take care of them,” she said. “It’s a crisis that I have never seen before, the exodus is extremely alarming.”
SEIU Healthcare is a union that represents 60,000 front-line health-care workers across Ontario. Stewart said most union members are fully vaccinated, but even a small percentage of layoffs could have a large impact on the quality of services hospitals will be able to provide.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled Canada’s new mandatory vaccine policy earlier this month. It requires all federal employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of October, though hospitals are not federally regulated workplaces.
Layoffs in Canada have already begun, leaving provincial authorities scrambling to make contingency plans ahead of expected staffing shortages.
The University Health Network told Global News in August they had contacted more than 900 staff out of at least 16,671 employees who have either not given their vaccination status or said they haven’t been vaccinated. Meanwhile, a southwestern Ontario hospital fired 57 employees who failed to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by the beginning of October, representing 1.5 per cent of staff.
Luc Mathieu, president of the Quebec Order of Nurses, told Global News that the union, which represents roughly 56,500 nurses throughout the province, has made the decision to suspend the licenses of members who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 until they get their shots.
He said the vaccine mandate will affect one group of 4,338 nurses who are not adequately protected, including 2,807 who are unvaccinated and 1,541 nurses who have received at least one dose. Another cohort of 5,716 nurses will also be affected because information about those nurses provided by the Ministry of Health doesn’t match the information the Order has on file.
In British Columbia, all health-care workers must be fully immunized against COVID-19 or receive an exemption from the provincial health officer by Oct. 26. Those who don’t will face unpaid leave and possible unemployment.
While provinces are following suit, some are offering incentives in a push to get more people vaccinated.
Quebec is offering up to $18,000 in bonuses to help resolve a staffing shortage of 4,300 full-time nurses. Meanwhile, Albertans have been encouraged to schedule vaccine appointments online in exchange for a pre-filled debit card with $100 on it at the government’s vaccine website.
Danielle Larivee, vice-president of the United Nurses of Alberta, expressed concerns about nursing shortages throughout the province, saying that the pandemic had “exacerbated” an already existing problem.
“We’ve had a nursing shortage in Alberta and across the country for years, in fact, and we’ve been certainly ringing the alarm bell on that for a long period of time,” she said.
The union represents more than 30,000 registered unions in Alberta, the vast majority of which Larivee said are immunized.
Alberta Health Services has required that all frontline health-care providers be fully vaccinated by Oct. 31. The deadline is fast approaching, and any registered staff unable to prove they’ve gotten both doses will be suspended without pay.
Larivee said she supports the vaccine mandate — “it absolutely is the most important way to reduce the burden that’s currently overwhelming our health care system and also to reduce the number of people who are getting seriously ill with the COVID virus,” she told Global News.
But she is worried about more seasoned nurses, who she said have already been working “a substantial amount” of overtime in short-staffed hospitals for almost two years.
“This is now the fourth wave. Every single wave has been challenging for them, and the cumulative impact on that is very traumatic,” she said.
“Many of our members are incredibly stressed and really struggling to deal with the challenges that are coming their way … I’m very concerned about the impacts we’re going to see in the many months to come, as they don’t really see a whole lot of hope for change in the near future.”
But some say this shortage has been a long time coming, and that governments may not have had to implement such hardline mandates if they’d given health-care workers more reasons to want to stay in their roles.
Stewart said she supports the vaccine mandates, but is worried that they will become “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for many workers who were already considering leaving the health-care industry.
SEIU Healthcare has asked the government to raise the minimum wage to $25 per hour for personal service workers (PSWs) and $35 per hour for registered practical nurses.
“I truly believe that if there was more attraction to these jobs that even those who are hesitant about taking the vaccine would take a look at the full-time work if it was there, the wages, the benefits, the environment which they work, and probably see more incentive to stay,” Stewart said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2019, the Canadian Institute for Health Information says more than 90,000 health-care workers have been infected with COVID-19 and 43 have died.
Stewart said the rate of infections and deaths among health-care workers, combined with poor working conditions, low wages, a lack of full-time work and around-the-clock hours, has made recruiting new hires near impossible.
“This is a systemic problem of a long-standing issue in the entire health care sector,” she said.
“It’s just really come to a head over the last 20 months and especially now with the vaccine mandate, we’re seeing that workers are not staying, they don’t have the right incentives to stay right now.”
— With files from Global News’ Caryn Lieberman, Heather Yourex-West and Phil Carpenter, Reuters and the Canadian Press