Facing impossible working conditions, nurses are being pushed into parasitic private staffing agencies. We must reverse this alarming trend.

  • National Newswatch

“Self-starter needed for a high-pressure, fast-paced environment with limited resources and support, insufficient wages, and no guaranteed time off. Shifts may last anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. Candidates must be comfortable with around-the-clock overtime and routine violence in the workplace. Oh, and let's not forget – poor staffing will make it impossible to feel that you've given your patients the time and care they deserve.”

Does this sound like a job you'd want to do?

Though they may sound extreme, these are the conditions many nurses in our public health care system are working under.

People across Canada – including the 460,000 working nurses who are being pushed out of secure jobs – are rightly worried about the wait times in health care.

Insufficient staffing, high workloads, unpredictable scheduling and a lack of respect are the top reasons nurses say they're considering leaving their workplace.

Years of canceled vacations, record-high hours of overtime and missing your kids' soccer games add up.

In many ways, nurses have been left with no choice but to leave behind their full-time jobs with benefits and pensions to work in private staffing agencies if they want any semblance of work-life balance: a day off, time with their families, or simply going home when their shift is done.

Indeed, more than one in three nurses are interested in agency work or increasing the work they already do. When it comes to early-career nurses, that number is even higher – 49.5% are looking to private staffing agencies.

These parasitic private staffing agencies are well poised to profit off the unsustainable working conditions that are fuelling the nation's dire staffing crisis.

Ensuring permanent health care jobs in our communities are good, attractive jobs is critical to both retaining nurses and countering this over-reliance on private staffing agencies.

In Ontario, hospitals paid more than $168 million in public funds to for-profit staffing agencies in the first nine months of 2022 alone. That's a 341% increase compared to spending in all of 2020-2021. New findings in British Columbia show that private staffing agencies are charging health authorities nearly twice the wage of unionized workers, with a markup of 30% or more.

Despite being paid for by public dollars, we know little about how private staffing agencies are operating. Reports show that agencies charge as much as three times the hourly rate of a public health nurse for equivalent work. But how much of that money goes into workers' pockets? How many nurses do they employ? What profits are private agencies pulling from public health care funding? We must ask who is profiting from potentially bankrupting our public health care system.

To combat this alarming trend, we must invest in proven solutions to create better health care working conditions and retain nurses in the public health system. Governments and employers must double their efforts to ensure that the recent increases to the Canada Health Transfer are responsibly used to sustainably meet the needs of all Canadians within the public health care system.

It's true that there will always be some need for temporary workers to fill short-term needs, especially in rural and remote communities. Governments should invest in a public alternative to expensive private agencies – not line the pockets of private owners profiting off this crisis.

Investing in public health care employees will give the strongest return on investment governments and employers can have: a sustainable public health care system that can serve Canada's needs today and for generations to come.

There are clear paths out of this crisis: proven, evidence-based retention, recruitment and return initiatives. In fact, most nurses say guaranteed days off, flexible schedules and safe staffing would keep them in their public health jobs.

Canada's union nurses are not giving up, and neither should governments nor employers. But without concrete action to sustainably address health care working conditions, private staffing agencies will only continue to drain both our public coffers and public health nurses.Linda Silas is the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, the national voice for nearly 250,000 nurses and student nurses across Canada.