A note to Premier Ford: Repeal Bill 124!

As I write this note, I reflect with grave concern over the state of nursing in Ontario. The shortage of RNs in our province has reached a crisis and it’s spiraling out of control.

RNAO has been warning about this for years. Since December 2020 I have alerted that a looming major crisis was nearing. First to my own nursing community and then to Anthony Dale, my counterpart at the Ontario Hospital Association. I have also alerted – repeatedly – Minister of Health Christine Elliott, as well as you – Premier Doug Ford. I reiterated that this crisis in Nursing impairs the effective functioning of our health system as well as patient safety. We called for measures that support building nursing careers in Ontario.

To reiterate: Bill 124 – capping salary increases to 1%, far lower than the rate of inflation – does exactly the opposite. Bill 124 symbolizes what is wrong about Ontario’s approach to the nursing profession. It is an important reason why RNs leave for better opportunities elsewhere.

Ontario has had a shortage of registered nurses for decades. Yet this is the worst crisis I have seen in my entire career. The enormous stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic; the disdain of the Ontario government embodied in Bill 124 – these, have turned a serious shortage into a mega crisis.

Since January 2020, Ontario’s nurses have been at the front lines of the battle with COVID-19. About 617 thousand people have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. We lost under 10 thousand lives and many more thousands are grieving. Throughout the pandemic, nurses have fought to protect themselves and their families. They have struggled, understaffed and unsupported, to save patient lives.

Bill 124, which has decreased nurses’ real pay by about 4% during the last year, is not the fault of the pandemic. Premier Ford, you are responsible for it.

Nursing colleagues resent Bill 124. It signals that our government devalues and disrespects us. Frontline nurses, managers and even hospital CEOs agree. RNAO and the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) agree. Therefore, on November 14 we pleaded to you to #RepealBill124 within 30 days. Only 16 days remain, and we have heard nothing from you. What a shame!

We know that the Ontario Hospital Association also agrees. We know that several of your ministers support repealing Bill 124. We know the public stands with nurses. What are you waiting for, Premier Ford?

Ontario’s wait times for procedures and surgeries are at an all-time high. Hospitals are cancelling surgeries, and many are not scheduled for lack of RNs. People are dying because we don’t have enough RNs to provide safe care. COVID cases continue to increase. A fifth wave of this pandemic – driven by the Omicron variant – is possible. All this requires more, not fewer nurses.

Recruitment is important and RNAO has brought proposals and supported programs. Yet retention is critical. Indeed, the best recruitment tool is retention. It tells newcomers that they are entering a workforce that has inspired others to stay, and that they will have adequate mentorship to succeed.

RNs in Ontario are burnt out by excessive workloads and fed up with the lack of respect represented by Bill 124. Many are taking their knowledge and skills to other jurisdictions. They seek fair pay, reasonable workloads and governments that value nurses. Others are taking control over their careers by becoming self-employed. They are charging hospitals up to $120 an hour to work in ICUs. Many are retiring early, and some are leaving the profession.

Premier Ford: Your government didn’t start the RN shortfall – Premier Mike Harris did so in the 1990s. Consecutive governments have done little to solve the problem. Your government didn’t create the pandemic – a virus did. Yet, Premier Ford, you did establish Bill 124 and it is the straw that broke the camel’s back. You set up this powerful sign of disrespect and disdain toward the profession.

Nursing is the central pillar of a well-functioning health system. Enduring the hardships of a 22-month pandemic has turned, thanks to Bill 124, into an RN workforce crisis. Yet you, Premier Ford, seem oblivious and continue to ignore our calls. Is it because we are a female dominated profession? It makes me wonder, given that you exempted firefighters and police. (I am happy you did; nobody deserves Bill 124).

Premier Ford: you have an opportunity. Repair the damage and help rebuild the nursing profession. For the sake of Ontarians, you must repeal Bill 124. We are waiting for your action!