About 160 veteran nurses, personal support workers and health-care technicians, along with their families, gathered in a church hall in Port Perry, Ont., in person or by video conference, on a snowy afternoon this past Saturday.
These distressed individuals have a message for patients waiting for health care in the province: we want to work on the front lines but are being shut out.
“I am ready, willing and able to work,” Lori Turnbull told CTV National News. But nobody will hire her.
The 58-year-old once worked in surgery and rehabilitation but was fired a year ago from a hospital in London, Ont., after a 30-year career.
In fact, all of the health workers in this unusual audience were terminated after declining to get two COVID-19 vaccinations in 2021, as required by all 140 of Ontario’s public hospitals and some nursing and retirement homes.
“I worked in emergency … for 20 years,” Casie Desveaux, a nurse from Hamilton, Ont., told CTV National News “I dedicated myself to that job.”
She now says she works in an office for her brother. She knows her hospital remains seriously understaffed.
“I’m worried… for the staff that are there… It’s very scary,” she said.
The group at the church gathering wants Ontarians to know there are experienced front-line workers who want to return to duty but are blocked by vaccine policies imposed by hospitals in the province, despite Ontario itself not requiring health workers to be vaccinated.
“I think people were aware that we were fired or let go,” Anna Luxton, who worked as an emergency nurse, told CTV National News. “But I think since the province said they lifted the mandate last March that [people] figured that we would have gone back to work. And the reality is that we haven’t.”
Since being forced out of health care, Luxton has worked on a dairy farm and as a waitress but says she wants to return to front-line care.
Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and Yukon no longer require health staff to have COVID-19 vaccinations.
During a briefing in February, Kieran Moore, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health, said it was time to consider removing vaccination policies across different sectors.
“They have served their purpose,” Moore said. “They have to be removed in a timely manner.”
However, despite Ontario dropping its health sector mandate in March, the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) continues to recommend the continuation of mandatory vaccination policies among the province’s 140 public hospitals.
Provincial officials say the hospitals can chart their own course in this respect.
“As set out under the Public Hospitals Act, hospital administrators are responsible for the day-to-day management of their hospitals, including policies related to human resources,” Bill Campbell, media relations coordinator for the Ontario Ministry of Health, told CTV National News in an emailed statement.
At the church gathering, one nurse spoke about how her former health facility was recently 64 staff short.
“And here we are?” she said.
Several other health workers who spoke up broke into tears.
“This is our career, our livelihood … it is our passion,” one said.
Another added: “What I find hypocritical is that the facility I was fired from is open to unvaccinated visitors to come in and unvaccinated family members … Why can I not get back to work unvaccinated?”
There are no official numbers on how many health workers were fired or quit because of vaccination policies.
“This is just a fraction of the health workers fired or laid off … I am sure more would have joined us if they could,” Helena Baker, a registered nurse, told CTV National News.
The OHA did not respond to multiple emails from CTV National News asking for an explanation why it recommended the continuation of vaccination policies for staff and any scientific reasoning behind it.
In a directive to hospitals considering hiring unvaccinated workers in December, officials wrote: “The OHA believes that COVID-19 vaccination policies within Ontario’s hospitals should remain in place given that they offer the highest level of protection for patients and health-care workers.”
“This isn’t about patient safety,” Rafael Gomez, director of the Center for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, told CTV National News. “Patient safety is compromised when we don’t have workers on the front lines dealing with heart attacks, dealing with illnesses. This makes no sense.
One expert says the Ontario government has the power to force hospitals to strike down vaccination policies.
“Legislatively, the province could order that there be no mandates, but they haven’t done so,” human rights lawyer Lisa Bildy told CTV National News from her home in London, Ont. “In Alberta, the government did, in fact, tell the Alberta Health Services that they needed to bring back unvaccinated workers. We haven’t done that here. I’m not quite sure why.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced last week the province will import nurses from elsewhere in Canada to help with the staffing crunch in hospitals.
“To nurses, doctors, and health-care workers across Canada: if you’ve been thinking of making Ontario your new home, now’s the time to make that happen,” Ford said.
The refusal by Ontario hospitals to hire unvaccinated nurses, even after the provincial vaccine mandate has been dropped for health-care workers, is puzzling, according to Arthur Schafer, founding director of the Center for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg .
“Without a well-evidenced public health rationale for denying employment to unvaccinated health-care workers – at a time of serious staff shortages – hospitals ought to welcome, or welcome back, every Ontario nurse who is qualified and available,” he told CTV National News.
“To deny someone employment, without good scientific evidence showing that they pose an unacceptable risk to the life and health of patients and colleagues, is a bad public health policy and appears to violate the human rights of the people involved.”
Meanwhile, those health workers who lost their jobs due to their vaccine status say they’ve struggled financially, as termination due to misconduct – an intentional act – can limit one’s access to social supports.
“I can’t collect unemployment. I can’t collect welfare. We are left out in the cold,” said one attendee at the church gathering.
These health workers could work in other provinces, some or even higher rates.
“Yes, I’m getting contacted probably on a weekly basis,” said Anna, a veteran registered nurse, who asked CTV National News not to use her real name. “I’ve been offered many contracts in Alberta … it pays very well, but again, do I want to leave my family behind? The timing is not great.”
She works instead in a grocery store. Others report they work in vet clinics, retail and as cleaners.
When asked to comment on vaccine policies keeping nurses away from front-line work, both the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) and the Canadian Nurses Association declined to comment.
In a November news release, ONA officials said: “Nurses are leaving in droves, citing overwork, burnout, moral distress.”
The release added that Ontario would need to hire 24,000 registered nurses to meet a safe patient-to-nurse ratio.