KINGSTON, ONT. -- The union representing registered practical nurses are calling on better supports and pay for those in the frontline role, saying the pandemic has worsened an already critical issue for the frontline workers 

The SEIU Healthcare and CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions say a new study shows many RPNs are facing poor mental health, burnout and stress on the job.

Melanie Viau is an RPN in Ottawa, and agrees. 

She says her usual position at her hospital would typically involve non-emergency surgery. But, at the start of the pandemic she was redeployed to the frontline, testing residents for COVID-19.

"It’s intense, it can be really intense. It’s scary," says Viau. "For months, I did not give my daughter a hug. Oftentimes I would change at the facility, I would shower and still I would not want to hug my daughter just for fear."

Now, those like Viau are calling on the Ontario government to increase wages, add more full-time jobs, and provide guaranteed mental health supports. 

A new poll by Oracle Polling of RPNs in Ottawa, Kingston and Cornwall shows:

  • More than half say their coping poorly, and that their mental health is poor, which is higher than the provincial average.
  • 34 per cent are experiencing low morale
  • 86 per cent say workload has increased a lot
  • 64 per cent say incidence of workplace violence is up
  • 75 per cent think that the potential for medical errors has increased
  • 40 per cent were exposed or got COVID-19; 24 per cent of those were not paid for sick days if they had to quarantine or isolate

SEIU Healthcare President Sharleen Stewart says the pandemic has only worsened an issue that has been growing over time.

"There was a crisis in health care before the pandemic, and now the public knows it has become critical," she says.

Viau says she’s seen colleagues get sicker "than they’ve ever been," while others have walked away from the job.

"I’ve had some colleagues quit completely," she explains.

On Friday, Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton announced $35 million for universities and colleges to train 2,000 more future nurses. 

"Nurses that will be trained to today's announcement are critically needed. The need for nurses has been growing steadily for years, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated this issue," says Fullerton.

However, the union says that pay for those nurses once they graduate is a major issue. 

Jackie Walker, the SEIU’s nursing division president, says they want the province to repeal a law that makes it harder to negotiate, and provide better mental health supports, otherwise it will be hard for them to last in the roles.

"My blood is boiling because what do they think, they’re just going to bring in some fresh blood, eager folks ready to help and burn them out too," she says. "And subject them to the oppressive work environments that RPNs are exposed to each and every day?"

Vieu says that while RPNs like her got a pandemic pay bump, it expired in August, and they would like to see it more permanent. 

"We’ve always been told a nurse is a nurse is a nurse, it would just be nice for the government to recognize us a little bit more," she explains.