A Yukon nursing shortage has forced Whitehorse General Hospital to rent nurses from private firms at an extra cost.
Agency nurses have been brought to Whitehorse for summer relief of permanent staff.
“They’re using a lot of agency nurses,” said James Bart, a negotiator with the Professional Institute for Public Service of Canada.
The agencies charge the hospital equivalent of double the normal wage, he said.
“They’re at about $80 an hour, from what I’ve been told,” said Bart, who recently finished negotiating the nurses’ new three-year contract.
Nine agency nurses have been used so far this summer, said Whitehorse General Hospital CEO Joe MacGillivray.
Agency nurses have been used off and on for a number of years, he added.
But the cost is much more reasonable than the union claims.
MacGillivray couldn’t confirm the extra cost of using agency nurses, but wage doubling is wrong, he said.
“Initially the cost was a factor,” said MacGillivray.
“But there isn’t much difference, it’s very comparable.”
The agency charges “a couple of dollars more” than the top wage plus benefits at Whitehorse General.
“It’s an investment we wanted to make for our staff to ensure vacation time and keep the same level of services (in the summer),” said MacGillivray.
All the temporary nurses have come from two agencies in BC — Solutions Staffing Inc. and Select Medical Consulting.
A nurse will stay six to eight weeks on average, living in the hospital residence.
The nurses are used in specialized areas where recruitment is tough, like the operating and emergency rooms and the maternity ward.
The hospital is having trouble recruiting for temporary positions to fill in for vacationing nurses, said MacGillivray.
Summer relief for permanent staff is a priority for the hospital so it looked at bringing in temporary nurses.
In April, the administration completed an analysis that found agency nurses would be a cost-effective solution.
“It’s not our first solution,” said MacGillivray.
“We’re using the agencies just to fill some of the gaps. We’re still recruiting both permanent and part-time term nurses.”
The hospital would rather not use agencies.
“We’d always give priority to local nurses with the proper skills,” said MacGillivray.
Agency nurses are used throughout Canada in hospitals facing staff shortages.
The private firms are operated like temp agencies.
Some say because of the transient nature of the business, agency nurses can’t provide the same continuity of care for patients.
The agency nurses — unfamiliar with departments and doctors — jump in, stay for a couple weeks and leave.
Before starting in Whitehorse, the temp nurses go through orientation, said MacGillivray.
All the nurses have so far been highly skilled, he added.
“The agencies are careful to hire well-qualified people,” said MacGillivray.
“People are glad to have them here. There’s been no complaints.”
Agencies provide a necessary service because hospitals across Canada are facing major employment issues.
Alberta is short 1,400 nurses and Canada 11,500, by some estimates.
Provincial governments are doling out massive wage increases in an attempt to poach — “attract” — nurses from other jurisdictions.
The supply and demand has made the private firms more attractive.
Health policy observers in Quebec have noted the number of nurses working for agencies has recently doubled.
Hospital board chair Craig Tuton declined to comment on the use of agency nurses.
“That’s a better question for Joe (MacGillivray),” said Tuton.
“That’s not something we deal with in governance, it’s administration.
“I know we use them, but that’s about as far as I know.”