Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Ontario’s deputy premier criticized the pay offered by the province to its nurses
Austerity policies are making life harder for nurses, experts and politicians are saying.
The top-salary doctors in Ontario recently voted for an increase of up to 7% a year over five years. Nurses got 1% after many years of negotiations.
Nurses have pushed for a higher pay hike but are sticking with 1% because they do not have the money.
And the Ontario government is facing a similar problem with other professionals.
Chris Simpson is Ontario’s deputy premier and Health Minister
“What you end up seeing is that there is such a focus on putting pressure on the workforce that the pressure has to be alleviated,” he said.
However, the government is struggling to figure out the right formula to share the wealth and avoid the big cuts that tend to follow recessions.
“You are having a lot of difficulty really identifying what the right level of compensation is for members of the health care workforce,” Mr Simpson told the BBC.
A recent job posting by one of Ontario’s public school boards showed that nurses, teachers and school support staff were all being asked to do overtime work, often at the same time.
Is it realistic to expect nurses to spend five hours doing clerical work or a teacher to do clerical work in addition to their work at school?
“This is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ situation. There is no evidence that staff have time to spend in administrative duties,” Jeffrey Price, a professor of health economics at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, told the BBC.
Dr Price also said that the higher pay offered by some medical specialties, such as orthopaedics and oncology, was having a positive impact, but other parts of the health care workforce were not benefiting and were struggling financially.
“It is a crisis situation at the moment,” he said.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Mental health support workers, such as therapists, have also not had a pay rise in decades
The World Health Organization has said that one in every three workers worldwide is paid below poverty line in terms of purchasing power parity.
‘No need for class warfare’
Some experts say that giving nurses a better deal, as they did for its doctors and teachers, could be an easy win-win for the province.
“It is important to be able to pay for the things you value, and that is healthcare,” Andrew Reid, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, told the BBC.
But officials from the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) do not share their colleagues’ enthusiasm for higher pay, even though one OMA member, Dr Howard Brody, says he has been offered a “milestone” pay rise that will ensure that nurses’ pay will be above the federal standard of $36,500.
Pressure to keep rising
Part of the problem is that Ontario’s other public sector workers – teachers, nurses, social workers, emergency responders and prison guards – have been guaranteed compensation increases as a part of their agreements.
The province says it needs to control increases because tax revenues are coming in, unlike pre-recession years.
The problem has also pushed the finance ministry to look at methods to offer greater stability to healthcare workers, such as by allowing changes to their compensation grids for sick leave.
This would give nurses the chance to increase their pay over time as needed, while staff would be guaranteed a banded level of wages.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The Ontario government used social workers to avoid hiring nurse practitioners
Dr Price also says that negotiating the same salary for staff working in any one group of health workers was a waste of time because they were all different in terms of health conditions, expertise and education levels.
“My concern is that the stakeholders in the health care sector are not coordinated in a way that makes sense,” he said.
So while the government is considering ways to give better pay to nurses, it is now facing pressure to find a way to give more money to teachers who have been promised 1% a year for the next six years.
Dr Price hopes that Ontario’s government will recognise the inequalities that exist and should not try to force one set of workers to be against another group of workers.
“It should be about how we can effectively and fairly share the wealth that is created in Ontario, and that does not exist for a lot of people,” he said.
“We have a duty to the people of Ontario to create an equitable system of paying for health care.”