Ontario’s nurses face an entirely avoidable problem: paltry pay for a job done with utmost compassion.
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While most other people’s mortgages and savings feel secure, Ontario’s nurses face growing fear of leaving nursing – an increasingly dangerous occupation – to settle for less money elsewhere. Tensions between the province’s two largest unions – which represent more than a third of the province’s nurses – have been brewing, with the unions asking the provincial government to reopen the bargaining table, but the Liberal government has thus far refused.
Nurses love to complain, but it’s hard to applaud how effective their organization is at drawing attention to the issue of insufficient pay. Every time they go on strike, local news programs produce soundbites of nurses standing in the front of the Centennial College deans’ building in Etobicoke, protesting their pay. However, the scope of the nurses’ grievances are truly impressive. It’s astounding to learn how Ontario nurses can walk off the job for weeks or even months on end and be only paid for strike time.
When I’m on strike, I’m typically paid approximately $130 a day or so – less than half the cost of lunch in most fast-food joints. Nearly all of my colleagues have this same experience, with some nurses reporting that they get paid even less if they’re working weekends.
Many of the nurses I know get less than $30,000 per year, making them one of the lowest-paid, least well-skilled and lowest-educated occupations in Ontario’s workforce. While this “low-end” paid nurses are often forced to earn $100,000 or more per year just to break even, working at the very top of the pay scale are nurses earning up to $200,000 per year.
I recently saw a story in the Globe and Mail showing nurses in North Bay with a median yearly pay of $42,000; this is a wage my parents made in the 50s. Their financial prospects were much bleaker than the nurses I know, who save more than six and a half times as much as me, their comparable peers in the health sector.
Ontario nurses say province’s grievances deserve an open negotiation. Photograph: John Gionfriddo/REX/Shutterstock
I think one of the biggest arguments nurses face in Ontario is that, as emergency nurses, we would be providing inferior healthcare in a remote location where we are unfamiliar. This argument is ridiculous. Nurses do “lethality assessment” on the frontline, operating in a high-stress environment as they save lives and increase the length of hospital stays – no place for inferior care.
The only thing that has changed in the past several decades is the number of people who have died from preventable preventable deaths in Ontario’s hospitals. Certainly, it is true that Ontario’s nurses have a difficult time adjusting to the differences between their medical experience and the challenges they face on the frontline. But this is so not just an issue for nurses, but for patients, as patients would get dramatically worse care than they do today if Ontario’s nurses didn’t get the staffing and pay they deserve.
Nurses in Ontario are also an integral part of child welfare teams that can save lives. Nurses can be deployed by police when vital emergency assistance is needed. Nurses can provide critical care in childbirth, safe in their role as midwives who combine all the best and worst aspects of a midwife and obstetrician. Nurses need to know that the health of their patients extends far beyond the visible body.
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Finally, nurses are frontline educators, working in schools and hospitals all across Ontario. While I am all too often encouraged to point out the horrible state of Ontario’s public education system, nurses in Ontario are still required to observe teachers’ lessons, ensure that students remain in their seats, give consistent checks to pupils, and more. It is appalling that Ontario’s government would deny such core duty time to nurses.
I realize that going on strike is not everyone’s ideal occupation. However, Ontario’s nurses are dedicated and passionate – they should not have to spend nearly a month on strike to be paid well enough to save a life.
• Eve Quinn is a freelance journalist living in Toronto