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There have been reports of emergency departments across the country shutting their doors to patients and people dying while waiting for treatment.iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Three of Canada’s largest health care unions are calling on the Ontario government to commit to five key measures in order to get the staffing crisis at hospitals and closings of some emergency departments under control.

The measures were detailed in a Friday morning joint news conference by the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

They include an increase in support for worn-down health care workers, financial incentives to retain existing employees and discourage retirement, and increased wages through the repeal of Bill 124 (which caps wage increases for nurses and other public-sector workers at 1 per cent annually for a three-year contract term). In addition, they are calling for the recruitment of qualified health care workers who are not currently employed in the sector, and the waiving of tuition for postsecondary health programs.

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“You can’t run a car on empty, and you can’t run a hospital on burnt-out staff,” said Sharleen Stewart, President of SEIU Healthcare, who went on to describe how workers are being pushed to the brink by a lack of support and gruelling hours to make up for inadequate staffing.

“Members call me and literally break down crying on the phone, saying ‘I can’t take it any more.’ ”

There have been reports of emergency departments across the country shutting their doors to patients and people dying while waiting for treatment. Health care advocates say that a rapidly thinning work force, driven by two years of pandemic stress and a ballooning volume of patients, is to blame. Provincial governments are under growing pressure to take drastic action.

On Thursday, Premier Doug Ford’s government directed the College of Nurses of Ontario to expedite the process in which it approves internationally educated nurses. The government is asking the body for a progress update in the next two weeks.

Stephen Warner, a spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones, cited the $5,000 retention bonus for nurses, which has been highlighted by Mr. Ford, as an example of the government taking action. As further support, Mr. Warner also pointed to a $12.4-million investment made by the government into the rapid expansion of mental health and addiction services for health care workers.

“We know more work needs to be done and continue to work with all partners, including Ontario Health and the 140 public hospital corporations, the regulatory colleges, and health sector unions, to address any challenges on the ground,” Mr. Warner said.

In response to a question about whether the provincial government would repeal Bill 124, Mr. Warner referred to comments made by Mr. Ford at a Wednesday news conference. At that time, the Premier defended his government’s actions but did not give a direct answer on whether the legislation would be axed. Mr. Ford also pointed to similar health care problems in other provinces.

“Do we need more people? 100 per cent we need more people. Are we willing to get more people? We’re doing everything in our power to get more people on board,” the Premier said.

Union representatives at Friday’s news conference, however, dismissed the Ford government’s efforts so far as insincere, and said the directive put forward Thursday would do little to stem the bleed of workers from the sector.

“We need a better solution than to keep bringing people into a collapsing system,” said Ms. Stewart.

“Even if they’re internationally trained when they come in, the environment and the working conditions have to be improved before they’re going to stay.”

“You can’t rely on the colleges to solve this problem,” said Michael Hurley, President of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. He said that the current level of vacancies in Ontario hospitals is estimated to be at least 20,000, with nurses running at a 20-per-cent vacancy rate.

Mr. Hurley says credit should be given to the provincial government in Newfoundland, which released a comprehensive plan to provide incentives for the recruitment and retention of staff earlier this week. He argues that a similar model should be tested in Ontario, as opposed to a refusal to negotiate.

“This is the kind of erratic approach to labour relations that demoralizes people because their value is not recognized,” Mr. Hurley said.

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