Health workers screen patients at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Quebec nurses pan government’s bonus offer, say real issue is mandatory overtime

MONTREAL — Sandra Gagnon said she received an excited phone call from her mom last week, after Quebec Premier François Legault said he would give full-time nurses a $15,000 bonus to keep them from quitting the public system.

Gagnon, however, was less excited than her mom. The bonus is bittersweet, she said in a recent interview, and it makes her wonder how much her health is worth.

“It’s so great, $15,000, but what do you want me to do with it?” Gagnon said. “I won’t have the energy and health to spend it.”

On Sept. 23, Legault unveiled what he called a “mini revolution” in the health system, announcing $1 billion to seduce nurses to stay in a network that is missing more than 4,000 of them.

Full-time nurses in the public system would receive one-time bonuses of $15,000, as would part-time nurses who switch to full-time work, Legault said. Nurses who have quit the public health-care network and return full time would get $12,000, while full-time nurses in five regions that are hit particularly hard by shortages would get $18,000, the premier said.

Many nurses and other health-care workers were quick to slam the plan on social media, calling Legault’s so-called mini revolution a temporary bandage on an issue that requires serious surgical work. The money is welcome, they said, but it doesn’t solve the issue of working conditions, particularly the dreaded mandatory overtime that public-sector nurses are subjected to.

Retired nurse Louise Martel says the money is not enough to bring her back into the system, because it only applies to people who return full time.

“You cannot ask a retired person to come back and work full time — it doesn’t make any sense,” Martel, 58, who retired in August, said in a recent interview. “We are not going to throw ourselves into the mouth of the wolf!”

Martel, from Baie-Comeau, Que., northeast of Quebec City, said when she heard rumours about the government’s announcement, she was tempted. She said she had thought about returning once or twice a week, knowing how desperate hospitals are for staff.

But she said when she heard the official announcement — that the bonuses would only apply to full-time nurses — it felt like a joke.

“I worked as a nurse for 37 years, but really it was more than 45 years if you take into account overtime,” Martel said.

Another problem with the bonuses is that they are taxable, she said, adding that close to half the promised amount will go right back to the government. “The bonus should be non-taxable — or give us a car that is worth $15,000.”

Even with the taxes, Gagnon said she won’t refuse the extra cash.

“Christmas is coming, I’m not going to say, ‘no, keep your money,’ but it doesn’t fix the problem and that’s what we’ve been asking for so long,” Gagnon said, adding that she usually ends up working close to 60 hours per week at her Montreal-area hospital because of mandatory overtime.

Gagnon, who has worked as a nurse for 25 years, said it’s virtually impossible to refuse overtime, adding that the government should have made solving that issue its priority.

“Nurses should have time to treat patients like if they were their parents, but we can’t do it anymore,” Gagnon said. “Why didn’t the government ask us what we needed? What we are missing?

“There are nurses who know when their shifts start but can never be sure when they are ending,” Gagnon said. “It’s not rare that I operate for 16 or 17 hours with less than 30 minutes to eat.”

Quebec’s plan proposes to reduce mandatory overtime, but not eliminate it. Legault said the financial incentives were only one part of the plan, adding that the money is crucial to prevent more nurses from quitting or moving to the private sector.

“Money won’t fix all the problems, but we think it will help us to curb the staff shortage in the short term,” Legault said in a statement. “We have a duty to succeed with everything you do for us. We owe you that.”

Meanwhile, while nurses were getting more money, other health-care workers said they felt left out.

Shortly after learning of Legault’s offer to nurses, a major union representing health-care workers such as medical technicians, said it halted the voting process on the government’s latest contract offer.

Union interim president Robert Comeau said the premier’s announcement angered his members, because they were allegedly told by the government in June there was no money left for the public sector.

“Everything has changed,” Comeau said in a recent interview, adding the members he represents also work in sectors facing labour shortages. His member work “in the same rooms” as nurses receiving up to $18,000 in bonuses, he said.

Peter Gleeson, a medical imaging technologist in Montreal, said he and his colleagues are the “eyes of the hospital” and deserve the same level of respect as nurses. Gleeson said he feels like there’s a lack of understanding among the public about how intertwined hospital workers are.

“There is hardly a diagnosis made without medical imaging of some sort,” Gleeson said in a recent interview, adding that the offer to the nurses has made him feel “invisible.”

“There’s a variety of needs and realities in the health-care network profession,” Gleeson said. “It can be a beautiful and gratifying profession, working as a team, but there’s a lot of frustration that comes with it too.”