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Quebec offers bonuses up to $18,000 to keep nurses in struggling health system


QUEBEC — The Quebec government is budgeting $1 billion to offer full-time nurses bonuses of up to $18,000 as it tries to prevent more of them from leaving the public health-care system and to entice those who have left to come back. 

The one-time bonuses are intended to lure thousands of workers back to the public sector from private placement agencies and retirement, Premier François Legault said Thursday, adding that he hoped they would also convince part-time nurses to switch to full-time work.

"Nurses have taken care of the rest of us for a long time; today it's our turn to take care of our nurses," Legault said in Quebec City.

He said the plan will lead to a significant reduction in mandatory overtime and improve working conditions following months of pandemic-induced stresses that have contributed to a shortage of more than 4,000 nurses in the public sector.

The province's largest nurses' union, however, said it was disappointed with the announcement because it only intended to reduce the use of mandatory overtime — not eliminate it. 

"We're in a crisis in the province of Quebec, there's a crisis in the health-care system. We're in the fourth wave of COVID and the situation is only worsening," said Roberto Bomba, an executive with the Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, which represents around 76,000 nurses and other health-care professionals. 

"They clearly missed the opportunity to eliminate mandatory overtime," he said in an interview Thursday.

Full-time nurses in the public system will receive one-time bonuses of $15,000, as will part-time nurses who switch to full-time work, Legault said. Nurses who have quit the public health-care network and return full-time will get $12,000.

And for full-time nurses who work in five regions that are hit particularly hard by shortages, including Outaouais and Gaspé, the bonus will be $18,000. In total, the bonuses and other related measures are expected to cost about $1 billion, Legault said. 

Health Minister Christian Dubé said the bonuses are intended to raise the percentage of nurses working full-time to 75 per cent from the current 60 per cent.

"Mandatory overtime will be reduced by adding staff in the short term, but also by moving to full-time," Dubé said. "The more people we have who come into our network, the more we'll stabilize everyone and the less we'll use agencies and the less we'll resort to overtime."

Bomba said the high percentage of nurses on part-time schedules is a result of previous government cost-cutting.

"In 2015, when we were negotiating, we were fighting for full-time positions," he said.

And while Bomba said he hopes the incentives will work, he worries about the fine print. He said he would have liked to see the government introduce incentives for voluntary overtime and fast-track the system negotiated in the new collective agreement to give nurses more predictable schedules.

Dubé said one-third of the bonuses will be paid immediately and two-thirds will be distributed at the end of October 2022.

The incentives will only be available to nurses who are fully vaccinated, Dubé said, adding that around 7,700 health-care workers in the province who are in regular contact with patients have not yet received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Those workers have until Oct. 15 to get fully vaccinated or risk being suspended without pay.

Legault said the province also planned to hire 3,000 administrative staff to help reduce the amount of paperwork for which nurses are currently responsible.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2021.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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