Saskatoon hospital staffers raise concerns over reliance on travel nurses in Sask.

Kayle Neis/Regina Leader-Post. Minister of Health Everett Hindley speaks to the press after question period at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building on Thursday, April 18, 2024 in Regina.

ER nurses expressed their concerns to the minister of health, explaining how the presence of agency nurses complicates a workplace.

Alec Salloum, Regina Leader-Post

A group of 49 emergency room nurses at Saskatoon’s St. Paul’s Hospital are raising concerns over how travel nurses are treated in the workplace compared to permanent staff.

The letter was sent to Minister of Health Everett Hindley outlining some of the concerns identified by the nurses. It speaks of “unrelenting change in our workplace” over the past three years.

“To the unit staff who have shown commitment to the emergency department, the agency nurses appear valued while they themselves are not,” read the letter. Some agency nurses, also known as travel or contract nurses, are paid three times what a typical full-time or permanent nurse is paid.

That disparity in compensation has led to feelings that permanent staff are less valued.

“There is an undeniable sense of resentment towards the concept of agency nursing,” read the letter.

“The nursing staff are told that they are to be grateful for the help but, at the same time, benefits that were held prior to the overuse of agency nurses are being taken away.”

Speaking Thursday, Hindley said agency nurses became more commonly used during and coming out of the pandemic as health-care workers were stretched thin. As a result, many left the industry, retired or had increasing workloads piled on top of them.

“I’m trying to balance the need for filling those vacancies over time and making sure that the existing staff do have the ability to have time off, whether it’s holidays or sick days,” he said.

At the same time, Hindley recognizes there is a need to “work in the other direction to reduce our overall reliance on travelling nurses.”

Hindley said he can understand how the presence of contract nurses could degrade morale on unit, but at the same time he recognizes there is need for them to fill gaps in the health-care system as it is right now.

During question period on Thursday, Jared Clarke, Opposition critic for rural and remote health, said “contract nursing has gone from a fill-in-the-gaps opportunity in the health system to becoming a baked-in, integral part.”

He said on average a travel nurse is paid approximately $289,256 a year, and right now the permanent nurses in Saskatoon are having trouble booking shifts and getting more overtime.

“Nurses in the hospital who do want to pick up extra shifts are told that they can’t because the SHA has to give the shift to the contract nurses first,” said Clarke.

The province spent $59 million on contract nurses in 2023 and this year is on pace to spend $70 million, according to the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN).

When it comes to when the province wants to phase out its reliance on travel nurses, Hindley said it is a priority.

“We’ve asked for the SHA to provide us with a strategy in terms of what it’s going to look like to reduce that overall reliance,” he said.

While Hindley did not put a timeline on it, he said “we would want to see a reduction in the reliance on travel nurses as sooner rather than later.”