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Paramedics bring a patient to the emergency department at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto on July 14.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario emergency department nurse Pam Parks now frequently goes home in tears at the end of her shift because she feels she isn’t able to give proper care in the overwhelmed system.

A registered practical nurse since 1986, Ms. Parks said a worsening staffing shortage in the province’s health care system has made the workload unbearable for nurses who now have to work longer shifts and care for more patients. Ms. Parks said she sometimes only makes it out to the parking lot after a long shift when she is called to see if she can pick up a vacant shift.

“The majority of hospitals across Ontario are in a full-blown crisis mode. We are on life support because there just aren’t enough of us to deal with the patients coming in,” she told reporters Thursday morning. “We’re sinking with no life raft to hold on to.”

Ms. Parks and representatives from health care unions are calling for “all-hands-on-deck action” from the provincial government and the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) to combat the staffing crunch and a wave of emergency room closures across Ontario.

Service Employees International Union Healthcare (SEIU) and the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU), representing 70,000 hospital staff in the province, issued open letters to both parties Thursday with recommendations to address what they describe as a crisis in the system.

A main priority for the unions is to have an “urgent meeting” with Premier Doug Ford to come up with a plan. OCHU president Michael Hurley said the focus must be on increasing wages to attract skilled workers to the sector, pointing to Bill 124 which capped public-sector wage increases to one per cent annually. The unions are also calling for a ban on the use of nursing agency staff in hospitals and further financial incentives to bolster short-term hiring.

“We are alarmed that today we are seeing no sense of urgency from the provincial government in the face of an unprecedented threat to our communities,” Mr. Hurley said. “We are very concerned that without a meaningful action plan, conditions will deteriorate further in our hospitals.”

The hospital staff vacancy rate was around 9 per cent at the latest survey in March and 12 per cent for nurses, with the unions estimating a shortage of about 20,000 people. Several emergency departments and urgent care centres, both in rural and urban areas, have had to reduce hours due to lack of health care workers in recent weeks as a seventh wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hits the province. (Emergency services at the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital have been suspended since July 2 and are expected to resume Sunday.)

In May, the average length of stay in an emergency room for those waiting to be admitted was 20.1 hours, the highest in 14 years aside from January during the height of the COVID-19 Omicron wave.

Responding to the union concerns in a statement Thursday, Ontario Ministry of Health spokesperson Stephen Warner said the provincial government has launched an extensive health care recruiting and training program in an effort to ramp up staffing. This includes spending $342-million to add more than 5,000 new nurses as well as 8,000 personal support workers as soon as possible. The province also launched a “learn and stay” grant for nursing graduates to receive a full tuition reimbursement for practising in an underserved community.

The unions also took issue with how hospital leadership across the province are handling the crisis and are calling for further transparency from the hospital association on the staffing crunch. SEIU Healthcare president Sharleen Stewart laid out a five-point plan that the unions want the OHA to adopt, including providing weekly press conferences to update the public on the situation and launching a website to provide real-time information on hospital staffing challenges at every hospital.

Ms. Stewart is also calling on the association to divert the funds being spent on a recent advertising campaign toward hospital care.

“Things are rotten in the state of our hospitals,” Ms. Stewart said. “We’re calling on hospital executives to bring transparency to the crisis and be accountable to the public about the state of the hospital crisis and staff deserve more information as well as a commitment to urgent action now.”

In response, OHA president and CEO Anthony Dale said the advertisements are part of a one-time campaign to celebrate the efforts of hospitals and staff and didn’t use public funds. Mr. Dale said the association values frontline health care workers and is working closely with the province to address the challenges facing the system.

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