Ontario hospital nurses will see their hourly wages rise by an average of 16 per cent this year after an arbitrator concluded a significant pay increase was necessary to attract and keep the workers in the wake of the pandemic, which has intensified labour shortages in health care.
In a decision released Thursday, arbitration board chair William Kaplan awarded raises that work out to an average of 11 per cent over two years, according to the nurses’ union.
The increases add to the raises awarded in two recent arbitration decisions that reopened previous contracts in which nurses’ pay was capped by Bill 124, a controversial public-sector wage law struck down by a court last fall. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is appealing that ruling.
Taken together, the arbitration awards mean hospital nurses will receive a $5- to $7-an-hour raise in 2023-2024, according to the Ontario Nurses’ Association.
“This decision is a first step to righting past wrongs, and bringing hospitals nurses’ compensation up to where it should be,” ONA president Erin Ariss said in a statement.
The arbitrator also granted nurses isolation pay if they have to stay off the job because of exposure to an infectious disease – a first for a health-care contract in Ontario.
Hospitals in Ontario, like across the country, have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep emergency departments open and tackle backlogs of care amid a national shortage of nurses and other front line health care workers.
The vacancy rate for registered nurses at Ontario hospitals was nearly 15 per cent last October, up from 5 per cent in March, 2018, according to the arbitration board’s decision. The nurse resignation rate doubled in the same period.
ONA, which represents about 65,000 registered nurses and nurse practitioners at 127 hospitals that are party to the new contract, argued that Ontario paid nurses too low a wage to keep them on the job, especially in an environment where shortages left remaining nurses with punishing workloads.
The union told the arbitrator that bonuses and incentives that included “raffles, swag, visits by therapy dogs, BBQs, recognition of long-service employees, manicures, massages and free snacks,” couldn’t make up for wages that were the lowest in Canada before the recent arbitration awards.
The Ontario Hospital Association, which represents hospitals funded by the provincial government, countered that generous pay increases wouldn’t solve the shortage because there simply are not enough nurses available to keep pace with a substantial increase in hospital beds opened since COVID-19.
Mr. Kaplan sided with the union on wages, saying it was clear more nurses were willing to work more hours if paid appropriately. Hospitals are already paying higher wages outside the collective agreement to nurses provided to hospitals by private staffing agencies, he pointed out.
“The vast expansion of overtime and agency nurse usage – demonstrated by a truly astonishing growth in both – establishes a true recruitment and retention problem,” Mr. Kaplan wrote. Among the best means to recruit and retain, and to incentivize individuals to enter a profession, is compensation.”
Anthony Dale, the OHA president, called the award “an important piece of a larger comprehensive strategy to address the health human resources challenges impacting Ontario’s health care system.”
He also said in a statement that the wage increases complement new health investments from the Ontario government, which this week announced increased funding for pediatric hospitals and for hospitals to reduce wait times.