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A nurse works around the bed of a COVID-19 patient in the Toronto General Hospital's medical-surgical ICU on Oct. 6, 2020.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

Tens of thousands of nursing jobs remain unfilled across the country as hospitals scramble to find workers amid a pandemic that has taken a heavy toll on the health care system.

Although employment in health care and social assistance rose by 19,000 last month, Statistics Canada job numbers show, the number of new hires was dwarfed by more than 112,000 vacancies in those industries. It was the highest vacancy rate of any sector.

Job postings for nursing positions in particular are up nearly 50 per cent compared with last February, according to data from hiring site Indeed Canada. Postings for nurses who can fill positions in urgent care, such as intensive-care units and emergency rooms, are receiving less interest from applicants than in the past, as measured by the number of times someone clicks on a job ad, Indeed economist Brendon Bernard said.

The rising vacancies are occurring even as the number of registered nurses employed in Ontario actually declined last year, said Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association.

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The rush to hire thousands of nurses is a result of long-standing issues with health care employment practices that have collided with a global public-health crisis, Ms. McKenna said. Many hospitals had long deferred hiring for full-time vacancies because of limited budgets, only to struggle to figure out how to staff up as COVID-19 cases soared.

“For years, we have been at the provincial and the federal government, talking to them, trying to get them to pay attention to the looming nursing shortage,” she said. “It’s not just an Ontario-made, or Canadian-made problem. It’s an international problem.”

Many of the nursing vacancies are for jobs that require more specialized training, while available candidates tend to have more generalist skills, said Louisa Benedicto, vice-president at staffing agency Hays Specialist Recruitment Canada.

COVID-19 is aggravating the worker shortage as nurses fall ill or are required to quarantine for weeks after testing positive for the virus. That has left hospitals rushing to backfill positions on short notice, without the time or resources to train new hires.

“Lots of nurses aspire to work in the hospitals. But the jobs, generally speaking in a normal world, are few and far between,” Ms. Benedicto said. “Now those jobs are in abundance, but we’re hit with the issue of: ‘We need people that can do the job tomorrow.’ ”

At the same time, the global nature of pandemics means skilled nurses are in demand around the world, making it more difficult for Canadian employers to hire from abroad even as U.S. hospitals compete for Canadian nursing-school graduates. Many have been willing to train new hires.

“They will recruit hard and they will pay big to bring nurses down there,” Ms. McKenna said. “I know we’ve had nurses leave during the pandemic to what they see as very attractive money.”

The nursing shortage is especially acute in the North. Many remote Indigenous communities don’t employ full-time doctors. So nurses serve as primary care providers, handling everything from emergencies, to chronic conditions, to administering vaccines.

While COVID-19 case numbers have remained comparatively low across Northern Canada, even a small number can stretch resources thin, meaning that nurses often don’t have time to handle issues such as preventative care, said Ben Langer, a family physician in Sioux Lookout, northwest of Thunder Bay.

“We’re basically asking these nurses to be anything and everything to people and we’ve watched these systems get busier and busier,” he said. Dr. Langer is among a group of nearly 50 physicians urging the federal government to address a severe nursing shortage in Northern Ontario Indigenous communities.

The problem has grown so large that some hospitals are starting to hire generalist nurses and train them in skilled positions, a stark departure from prepandemic times when hospitals could be highly selective about who they hired, Ms. Bernardino said.

Still, Ms. McKenna worries that the nursing shortage will only get worse once the pandemic recedes, when she expects burned out nurses will start retiring in large numbers.

In a Statscan survey released last week, more than two-thirds of health care workers said their mental health has suffered during the pandemic. That figure was even higher among those directly involved with caring for COVID-19 patients.

“I’m worried about the pandemic and what it is doing to the health care work force overall,” Ms. McKenna said. “But particularly to nurses and how they’re going to fare coming out of this, and then what our future looks like.”

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