Union sounds alarm over the lack of community nurses

The Yukon Employees Union and NDP say the territorial government is putting Yukoners at risk by requiring nurses in the communities to work long stretches alone.

The Yukon Employees Union and NDP say the territorial government is putting Yukoners at risk by requiring nurses in the communities to work long stretches alone.

Most health centres outside of Whitehorse ideally have two registered nurses on staff, the Department of Health and Social Services confirmed. Centres in Burwash Landing and Destruction Bay are the territory’s only single-nurse centres.

But nothing in the department’s policy prevents nurses from doing the job solo in any community if they have to.

Both sides admit that happens, but they paint dramatically different pictures of just how bad things are.

Health Minister Mike Nixon insists the longest stretch anyone’s ever gone working alone in a community is five days.

YEU president Steve Geick, a former community nurse, says he’s spoken to people who have done it for weeks.

“Nurses, first responders in general, will do what they have to do, right? So if they have to be up three nights in a row, or whatever, or on call 24/7 for three weeks at a time by themselves, they’ll do it. They won’t look after themselves,” Geick said.

“But there is a point where they’re going to hit the wall and make mistakes. I bet my bottom dollar community nursing and the Department of Health is not going to stand up and say, ‘Oh no, that’s our fault. It’s the nurse’s license that’s on the line.”

NDP Health critic Jan Stick is also critical of the department’s numbers.

“If that were true nurses would have days off and would have vacation leave. But I spoke recently to a nurse who worked five days a week and three weekends in a row. So if you add that up, that’s over 20 days.”

In the communities, health centres have regular office hours and a nurse on-call 24/7.

Nurses are the front lines in many communities where doctors come in only periodically.

It’s unclear whether the government’s numbers include working on weekends, where one nurse is always on call but might not be at the health centre.

Spokesperson Pat Living said she didn’t know.

The two sides can’t even agree on how many nursing jobs there actually are outside of Whitehorse.

The union says 22. Nixon originally said 40. Department staff later admitted to giving him incorrect information. Now they say 32.

It appears the department counts nurses at the hospitals in Watson Lake and Dawson – four people total – who are not part of the union’s number. But that doesn’t completely close the gap.

Nixon said there are 11 vacancies right now. All of those are being filled with auxiliary staff while the department recruits, he said.

He accused the NDP of instilling fear in people for claiming that five nurses quit in the last few months.

He said only one person resigned and another retired.

Stick is standing by her number.

If anyone’s afraid, it’s the nurses, she said.

She’s calling on the government to find an independent person to come in and speak to the nurses to assess their needs.

“The nurses are afraid to speak up, they feel they are gagged, they feel if they speak up it will make their lives not good. So maybe someone needs to come in and say, ‘What is going on, how do we support these nurses? How do we support these communities?”

Geick had a similar message for Nixon.

“He needs to go to the communities, he needs to talk to the nurses openly and candidly, and ensure that there is no censorship by the branch.”

Geick said nurses in the communities do more than deal with emergencies that walk through the door.

“They’re also responsible for all the programming that’s done in Whitehorse by public health. Babies, immunizations, you name it. But when you’re alone, and you’ve got somebody having a heart attack, all of that other stuff suffers, you just can’t do it.”

Stick said she’s concerned.

“I have people calling me saying, ‘I haven’t had time off, I’m on call 24/7, and my phone will ring every night at some point.’”

Nixon dodged the question when asked if he thought nurses working alone was safe.

“There are probably many people that work alone…in communities, the nurses have done a fantastic job. They have backup from RCMP if they need help, there are EMS in the community if a nurse needs help. There’s a variety of ways that they can get support.”

Geick said the union has been asking for more staffing in the communities as part of contract negations for years, but with no luck.

The next round of negotiations happen later this year.

Instead of creating more positions, the government has boosted community nursing salaries. That means an extra $4/hour if you work alone and a $6,000 if you stay for a year.

“If they seriously want to throw money at it, then throw enough to do the goddamn job right,” said Geick.

“I would rather see them stop the service. If they can’t provide fully functional service, then don’t provide anything because you’re putting everybody in danger.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at