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A Dark Truth About Nurses?

I became a Nurse back in 1996.  Back then employers were only hiring either casual or part time.  Like so many others, in order to increase my earnings I took on two jobs.  In order to manage both jobs, it often meant working double shifts which usually included working an evening shift at one employer and then going in for a night shift at the second employer.  I did that for 5 years, right up until I got married.

Prior to getting married, both my fiance and I were getting increasingly frustrated that neither of us could get a full time job in Nursing (she’s also a Nurse).  Around the same time, our municipal employer was trying to scale back on the number of Nurses that it had in their Long Term Care facilities.  They wanted to convert many of the Nursing positions into lower paid Personal Support Worker positions.  I decided to do some research as to what was going on.  What I found out completely shocked me and has angered me ever since.

The first thing I did was getting my hands on a seniority list for our workplace.  I found that our workplace was approximately 70% part time employment.  The next thing I did was look at different collective agreements across the municipal corporation.  I found that our bargaining unit (at the time) was the only one that didn’t have a bridging of health benefits for early retirement.  This means that those in other bargaining units, if their members chose to retire before age 65, some form of their extended health coverage such as medications would continue till age 65.

Then came the telephone conversation that changed everything.  It was a conversation that I still remember, even 20 plus years later.  When doing my research I called the Municipal Fire Department and asked to speak to the Fire Chief.  Now keeping in mind, the Municipal Fire Department was part of the same Municipal Corporation as our workplace.  We both had the same Municipal employer.

I asked the Fire Chief, “How many full time and part time Firefighters are there?”  His response was, “There’s no such thing as a part time Firefighter.”  My second question was, “How many Male/Female Firefighters are there?”  He said that there were no female Firefighters, but women could definitely apply.

After that shocking conversation I called the municipal police force and asked the same two questions.  There were a few female police officers and the workforce was essentially 100% full time employment.

Based on my two telephone conversations I drew a quick conclusion.  The number one reason why Nurses and other health care workers experience what they do is that it’s a female dominated workforce.

I and another Nurse decided to pursue a discrimination greivance against the employer.  Our workplace employment was primarily part time because it was female dominated within the same corporation as police and fire which was primarily male dominated and primarily full time.  What was also important with comparing our workplace with Police and Fire departments, was that we were all deemed “Essential Services”.  This meant that we could not do any kind of job action such as going out on strike.  What shocked us was that our union decided to drop the grievance, which completely infuriated us.

In the years since, I have become more and more convinced that the number one reason why Nurses and other health care workers are treated like garbage is that the powers that be, view these workers as nothing more than a bunch of women, therefore not a priority.  It brings me back to my Sociology course when I was in the Nursing program in the 90’s.  One of the required course materials was a 38 page booklet titled Sociology and Nursing by T.J. Callaghan and Lorne Tepperman (1993).  In that booklet it mentioned that because Nurses are primarily women, their concerns are “viewed as quite trivial”.

When the COVID 19 Pandemic was starting, I was shocked, yet not surprised that Nurses and other frontline health care workers didn’t have adequate supplies of masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  To me this made absolutely no sense, due to the fact that Nurses and other frontline health care workers are routinely exposed to potential respiratory outbreaks like Influenza.

So, let’s go back to the gender issue.  Are we going to tell firefighters to fight a fire by not allowing them to have water hoses?  Are we going to tell soldiers on the battlefield to fight a battle by not allowing them to have ammunition for their weapons?  Yet we were allowing Nurses and other frontline healthcare workers to manage a respiratory Pandemic by limiting their access to masks and other PPE?  Firefighters and Soldiers are male dominated fields and as already mentioned, Nursing is female dominated.

Are Nurses actually respected?  During the early months of the COVID 19 Pandemic, there were signs of the public’s appreciation towards Nurses and other frontline health care workers.  There were various reports in the media of people banging pots on their balconies to signal their appreciation.  As great as this was to see, the big picture of that appreciation is questionable.  For example, many people have seen large funeral processions and funerals of Police Officers, Firefighters and Soldiers who were killed in the line of duty.  Many of these funerals were even televised.  In comparison, how many Nurses and other health care workers have died after contracting COVID 19 in their line of duty during the pandemic?  Yet many of them barely had any announcement in the media, other than an obituary.  I have yet to see a televised funeral of a Nurse who died in the line of duty where Nurses from across the country attend in the same manner that is seen for Police officers.  If such a funeral was held, it’s likely that Nurses from across the country would be denied the time off to attend.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) had designated 2020 the International year of the Nurse and the Midwife.  This was in recognition that they play a “vital role in providing health services.”  The WHO had no idea as to the sheer scope of how vital that role would be in the coming years during the COVID 19 Pandemic.

Now Nurses (in large numbers) are leaving or planning on leaving the profession.  In 2022, the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario surveyed 760 of its members and 47% indicated that they plan on leaving Nursing. For many Nurses, the conditions in which they have worked during the COVID 19 Pandemic was the last straw.  They are fed up.  They are routinely not listened to and ignored.  This has led to critical shortages to the point where different Emergency Departments have either scaled back or completely closed during different periods of time.  In comparison, I have not seen anything with regards to an exodus of Police Officers and Firefighters from their jobs  

During the SARS outbreak of 2003, 2 Nurses and 1 Doctor lost their lives after contracting SARS in Canada.  After the SARS Outbreak of 2003, Canada had the SARS Commission which released its reports in 2006.  From the introduction of the reports it states:

The Ontario Nurses’ Association surveyed its members after the outbreak and found that almost two-thirds felt their health and safety had been compromised during the SARS outbreak. More than half felt their SARS work was not adequately respected or they were unsure if it was respected. Their concerns were reflected in comments such as these: 

I was torn between staying and quitting because my husband was scared. 

Nobody listens to nurses. 

Totally devastating on family life.

So, does Canada recognize the service and sacrifice of Nurses and other frontline health care workers after SARS?  One only has to view the Government of Canada’s Memorial Grant Program  (MGP).  When reading the information on the site, I noticed that on December 21, 2020 (nearly a year into the COVID 19 Pandemic), Public Safety Canada announced that it was expanding their list of First Responders beneficiaries to include correctional, parole and probation officers.  The government’s list of First Responders does not include Nurses or other front line health care workers.  So far there have been  7 Nurses (as well as other health care workers) who have lost their lives associated with being infected with COVID 19 in Canada. https://nursesunions.ca/covid-memoriam/

Yet, the MGP outlines that it “is in recognition of their service and sacrifice,” and that these First Responders “are acting in service to all Canadians.”  Do Nurses not fit into this?

Based on the experiences of so many Nurses and other health care workers during the COVID 19 Pandemic, clearly nothing has changed since SARS.  They continue to be treated like garbage and viewed as nothing more than a bunch of women.  In fact, at one point during the COVID 19 Pandemic, the province of Alberta was pushing for Nurses to get a wage cut.  In addition, the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) had to pursue legal action against four Long Term Care facilities in early 2020 with regards to health and safety issues during COVID 19 and those facilities not providing sufficient PPE.  Thankfully a judge with the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario ruled in favour of ONA. 

For far too many Nurses, the conditions in which they work in and the way that they are treated, they are the equivalent of Wage Slaves

Nursing can be a very rewarding career.  I have many fond memories when I was working as a frontline Nurse in Long Term Care for 15 years.  Having said that, it was far too often overshadowed by the negative way in which we were often treated.  We have two daughters, ages 12 and 17.  It’s sad to say, but we are doing everything we can to discourage them from becoming Nurses.  We do not want them to be abused and treated like garbage as so many other Nurses are.

As I completely agree that the wages of Nurses need to be increased, it is also a reality that a person could have their wages doubled the next day, but if they continue to be treated like garbage, they are not going to stick around.  Governments and Health Care employers/managers need to immediately end the sexist mentality of Nurses being nothing more than a bunch of women.  They are highly educated, regulated professionals.  Therefore, they must be treated and respected as such.

Follow Up: Canada’s Federal Health Minister on August 23, 2022, named the new Chief Nursing Officer.  The government indicated that the position was scrapped back in 2012, because the government was “realigning resources across priorities,”.  So for a decade, Nursing in Canada’s Health Care system has not been a priority?

Until next time, stay safe, healthy and strong.

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