Nursing vacancies a lingering problem in Manitoba, NDP says, as government lauds recruitment plan

While the Manitoba government touts a long-term plan to bring more nurses into the workforce, it won’t fix the dire shortages the profession is already facing, the NDP argues.

The Official Opposition presented new data Wednesday to show hospitals in Winnipeg and Brandon are coping with a nearly 25 per cent vacancy rate among critical care nurses. 

The information affirms what nurses and other critics have been declaring for the last few years: the nursing shortage in Manitoba has become a chronic problem.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the Tory government Wednesday of failing to learn its lesson from a pandemic that overwhelmed Manitoba’s hospitals. 

“For the past year and change, we’ve been living with public health restrictions that we were told were to buy us time to strengthen our health-care system. Now, even as we look ahead to a reopening, we see that there’s still many, many positions empty in the ICU [intensive care unit],” Kinew told reporters.

Earlier this month, the government responded to the long-standing problem exacerbated by COVID-19 by vowing to boost post-secondary enrolment for prospective nurses and making it easier for internationally-trained colleagues to work locally.

Benefits of more post-secondary seats seen later

Specifically, the government will increase the number of nursing school seats from more than 800 currently to around 1,200, as well as offer up to $23,000 in supports per trained international nurse who chooses become licensed to practice in Manitoba.

But the earliest these prospective nurses can graduate is 2023, which would only prolong the “astronomically high” vacancy rates, NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said.

“For the minister to now say, ‘We’re hiring more nurses, we’re getting rid of the barriers for internationally-educated nurses, we’re creating more education spots,’ what the minister is actually saying is ‘we’re filling back up the hole that we dug in health care in Manitoba.'”

The government voluntarily provided the new vacancy data to Asagwara in response to their question at a committee of supply meeting this spring.

As of May, two in 10 critical care nursing positions at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg are empty. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The document shows 111 of the 447 full-time equivalent positions for critical care nurses were empty as of May 30. The vacancy rate is also around 25 per cent for RNs (registered nurses). 

The critical care nursing shortage at St. Boniface Hospital and Grace Hospital in Winnipeg sits at a 28 per cent vacancy rate. Two of 10 positions at Health Sciences Centre are unoccupied.

The number of vacant nursing positions is well above the eight per cent the former health minister described as “normal.”

Nurses ‘well aware’ of vacancy rates

Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson isn’t surprised by the findings. 

“These numbers don’t actually tell me anything new because any nurse in this province is well aware of the vacancy rates,” she said.

Before more nurses can be trained and hired, Jackson said the government must do everything in its power to retain the nurses the province already has. Some exhausted nurses have quit or moved away, she said.

She said Manitoba may need to dangle a $75,000 signing bonus for out-of-province recruits — a new tactic deployed by the Windsor Regional Hospital in Ontario.

Citing a long-standing shortage of nurses across the country, Manitoba’s government said it is striving immediately to hire more nurses.

In May, the province pledged to create 60 new critical-care nursing positions. Since then, 16 more nurses are working in July than three months earlier — with more to come, the government said.

As well, hospitals are in the process of hiring new university nursing graduates and 130 nurses have finished the full critical care nurse orientation program since the pandemic’s early days.

The spokesperson also said more than 1,200 applications have been received for internationally-educated nurses in the first week the application period has been opened.