Two Toronto-area nurses are airing their frustrations over how the Ontario government let their pandemic pay expire while continuing to pay boosted wages to doctors, some of whom are doing the same work as nurses due to COVID-19.
Deepi Saharan, 27, received support from thousands of people when she posted about the issue on Instagram recently.
“Unappreciated, disrespected, and lack of support for nurses by this Ford Government,” she wrote, referring to the government of Premier Doug Ford.
Saharan pointed out that some physicians earning as much as $450 an hour in intensive care units (ICUs) are working under nurses being paid $33 to $48 an hour.
“HOW IS THAT OKAY??” her post said.
Nurses and other front-line workers in Ontario received an increase in their hourly rate, plus a monthly lump-sum payment, for four months beginning last April. While the extra remuneration expired in August, doctors have continued to receive temporary pandemic pay.
Saharan, who cares for COVID-19 patients in an ICU, said that she decided to go public because she feels the situation is unfair. She stressed that she was only speaking for herself and not for her employer, union or governing body.
“It just felt wrong,” Saharan wrote in an email to CBC News. “Providing temporary provincial support for one profession and not another, one who is equally if not more involved, is not right.”
She said physicians deserve to be compensated for their skills and education, but nurses are not being paid enough for the extra work and stress they’ve taken on during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on my colleagues and I, a toll which is indescribable.”
Doctors’ pandemic pay meant to simplify billing
In April 2020, Ontario offered nurses and other front-line workers a $4-an-hour pay hike for 16 weeks, plus a $250 lump-sum payment for each of the next four months if they worked more than 100 hours per month. But that pay expired in August.
Physicians who work in ICUs that are experiencing surges caused by COVID-19 are getting paid a temporary rate of $385 an hour for day shifts and $450 an hour for overnight shifts, according to an April 2020 memo sent to hospitals by Ontario’s Ministry of Health. Doctors who work in other parts of hospitals are also earning special rates.
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In some cases, when ICUs are in dire need of staff, doctors earning these rates are working as “nurse extenders” to support nurses with their tasks, Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, told CBC News.
“It’s a bit upsetting,” Grinspun said of the pay discrepancy, “in the sense that the nurses are the experts training them.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said the temporary funding for physicians creates flexibility so that hospitals can better respond to surges in COVID-19 caseloads.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Medical Association said the temporary hourly rates were not meant as pandemic bonuses but to simplify billing for doctors who normally have to charge for each service they provide.
“Some physicians have volunteered to cover nursing shifts to allow nurses to have time off or to address staffing gaps. It’s up to individual hospitals and the Ministry of Health to decide how to compensate physicians working as nurses,” Leslie Shepherd said in an email.
Veteran nurse thinking of move to U.S.
Nikki Skillen, another ICU nurse in the Greater Toronto Area, said many nurses are reconsidering their profession or thinking about moving to the United States, where the pay is better. She’s applying for a U.S. visa to have in her “back pocket,” she told CBC News.
“There has been absolutely no incentive for us here,” said Skillen, who’s been an ICU nurse for 24 years in the Toronto area.
Both she and Saharan, who did not want to identify the hospitals where they work, said that nurses’ raises are also being capped at a maximum of one per cent a year under legislation introduced by the Ontario government in 2019.
“We were really enraged by this,” said Skillen, who started a Facebook group to fight against the wage cap. “We’re worth more than one per cent.”
The ministry’s spokesperson didn’t respond to a question about why nurses aren’t getting a pay boost while physicians continue to receive temporary pandemic pay.
David Jensen said Ontario is spending $52 million to recruit and retain 3,700 new health-care workers, including nurses.
“This is one of the largest health-care recruiting and training initiatives in the province’s history,” he said.
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