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Ontario hospital nurses awarded average raises of 11% over two years, union says

A health-care worker is seen at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Ontario hospital nurses will be getting raises of what their union says amounts to an average of 11 per cent over two years, with the arbitrator citing a staffing crisis and high inflation.

It's the first contract since the nurses — and other broader public sector workers — were subject for three years to a wage restraint law known as Bill 124, which capped increases at one per cent a year.

Nurses and government critics have blamed Bill 124 for making it more difficult to recruit and retain nurses, particularly while they were on the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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 wrote in a statement.

"ONA members have been organizing across the province to push for better wages to improve staffing and patient care. This time, we were heard.”

Talks between the Ontario Nurses' Association and the Ontario Hospital Association failed to produce a deal, so an arbitrator had to decide the terms.

William Kaplan wrote in the arbitration award that there are more than 9,000 registered nurse vacancies in Ontario hospitals and compensation is one of the best ways to attract staff.

"The evidence presented establishes that there is truly a nursing recruitment and retention crisis in Ontario’s hospitals," he wrote.

"ONA members are leaving their jobs because vacancies were not being filled, creating unmanageable workloads leading to burnout and exhaustion driving employees from the workplace."

Kaplan's award increases rates in the wage grid, and awards raises on top of those of 3.5 per cent this year and three per cent next year. The ONA says that equals roughly 11 per cent in the two years for the average nurse.

Kaplan also wrote that high inflation is starting to be taken into account in free, collective bargaining, which his decision attempts to replicate.

"The award takes inflation into account and is an acknowledgment of the incontrovertible evidence that for more than a decade inflation has greatly outpaced RN rates," he wrote.

The decision also gives hospitals more flexibility in short-term reassignments for nurses, so it is not considered a layoff when they need to manage staff shortages, and it creates dedicated isolation pay for exposure to communicable diseases.

OHA President Anthony Dale said the improved wage grid will benefit new and early career nurses in particular.

“It further recognizes the important role that experienced nurses play in patient care as well as their contributions in supporting these newer nurses through increased premiums for student supervision, mentorship, and team leadership,” he wrote in a statement.

An Ontario court found Bill 124 unconstitutional late last year, but the government appealed.

Even though that ruling is under appeal, the nurses were able to go back to the arbitrator to secure additional wages for 2020-2022 under the previous contract, since the contracts were subject to reopening if Bill 124 was repealed or declared invalid.

They were awarded additional wage increases of 0.75 per cent, one per cent, and two per cent for each of the three years, respectively.

Hospital workers such as dietary aides, personal support workers and registered practical nurses were also awarded additional back pay due to Bill 124 being found unconstitutional, as were ONA members working in the charitable homes sector, and paramedics at the Ornge air ambulance service.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2023.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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