A new office dedicated to hiring health-care workers in Nova Scotia needs to take immediate action to address employees who feel overworked and undervalued if it hopes to fill hundreds of vacancies, say union leaders representing paramedics and nurses in the province.
On a recent day, there were an estimated 2,165 health-care jobs available in Nova Scotia, including 1,086 registered nurses and 27 paramedics, according to numbers provided by the new Office of Health Care Professionals Recruitment and EHS, the province’s ambulance service.
Those numbers change daily. They also don’t show the full picture, according to Michael Nickerson, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727, which represents paramedics in the province.
“We do know that paramedics are leaving the profession altogether or they’re leaving the province to go work in other provinces and go make more money,” said Nickerson, adding that he’d like to see the new office address those issues right off the bat.
“Paramedics need to feel valued and they need to feel appreciated.”
He estimates another 200 paramedics are on sick leave for physical or mental health reasons. That would represent about 18 per cent of the paramedic workforce.
Nursing workforce expected to shrink
Likewise, Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, said the numbers don’t reflect the many vacancies in the workforce.
On top of registered nurses, she said there are vacancies for 235 licensed practical nurses and 12 nurse practitioners.
“To put that in perspective, that’s probably upwards of 30 per cent,” she said.
Hazelton has long advocated for help in addressing the nursing shortage, which she said is about to get worse. About 25 per cent of nurses in the province hope to retire within the next five years, she said.
Furthermore, the government has never surveyed nurses to see why they want to leave.
“We need to know what we’re dealing with and why before we can address the problem,” she said.
Like paramedics, nurses face frequent overtime. If one of their peers calls in sick, they can’t go home until a replacement is found to take over. That creates a safety issue.
“There’s only so many times you can count on that nurse to do so many extra hours because they get tired and that’s when they get injured,” she said.
Retention a key issue
Nickerson, whose membership shares a number of concerns with the nurses’ union, said if anyone wants to see change in the workforce, they need to talk to paramedics who have been on the job for years.
“There’s a lot of disdain for the company [EHS] among the paramedic ranks, and I think that’s due to the working conditions over the years,” he said.
Nickerson said paramedics often work 15-hour days without proper meal breaks. While salaries are important, so too is the ability to have a work-life balance.
“We need the employer, and government as well, to acknowledge what they do on the daily basis,” he said.
The Office of Health Care Professionals Recruitment is now working with EHS. In a statement, the ambulance service said it has established an internal committee looking at solutions.
It has hired 57 paramedics and six medical communications officers since January, compared to just 42 new hires in all of last year. A new group of employee orientations is starting this month.
The office said it hopes to hire above and beyond the estimated vacancy rate elsewhere in the health-care sector. For example, it estimates there are 448 continuing care assistant openings, but it aims to recruit nearly 1,000 more workers.
It has already seen success with doctors by changing the funding models for some new physicians who were considering leaving, and signing contracts with Nova Scotia medical students who are training out of province, said Dr. Kevin Orrell, the office’s CEO.
During his first day in the House of Assembly, Premier Tim Houston — whose Progressive Conservatives campaigned on fixing the province’s health-care system — acknowledged that his mind is on retention as well.
“I don’t have a target now to share, but I can say we feel the urgency and it’s something I feel personally accountable for,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Hazelton said she is optimistic about the new provincial office, saying it’s the first time in her career she’s seen a government department dedicated to recruitment.
She expects to see a change in the numbers within the next six months.
“What nurses need to see is something tangible,” she said. “Something that shows them help is on the way.”