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Travel nurses will help fill summer gaps on P.E.I. but higher pay called ‘disheartening’

Nurses on P.E.I. are bracing for another challenging summer, knowing there are still 300 staff vacancies in the system as peak vacation season approaches.

As it has in the past, the province has confirmed that it plans to bring in travel nurses — freelance registered nurses who work for independent staffing agencies — to help ease the load temporarily. 

Barbara Brookins, president of the P.E.I. Nurses’ Union, acknowledges travel nurses are necessary, but she said they should be used only after exploring all other resources. 

“We want to ensure we take care of our own members first, because our own members are taking care of the services every day, 365 days a year… We don’t want to be seeing agency nurses coming in here and getting paid and compensated differently than our members are.”

Travel nurses are generally paid at a higher wage, and are often compensated for their expenses at a temporary job, Brookins said.

“It’s pretty disheartening when you’ve been holding the system together and then a travel nurse kind of swoops in and — you know they’re a great resource, but then they’re making at least time and a half. And they’re getting accommodations paid, they’re getting mileage paid, they’re getting meals paid.

It’s pretty disheartening when you’ve been holding the system together and then a travel nurse kind of swoops in and… they’re making at least time and a half.— Barbara Brookins

“They all have different deals, but it’s certainly more than what our collective agreement and what Health P.E.I. offers to our members.”

The provincial government and the nurses’ union have been negotiating toward a new contract for about 20 months. Four days of negotiations are booked for early May.

‘300 holes in the system’

Brookins said the vacancy rate for nurses on the Island is about 24 per cent.

To reduce that, she said the province needs to be more competitive when it hires and looks to retain nurses. Nova Scotia, for example, offers 100 per cent student loan forgiveness to new nurses as well as thousands of dollars in retention bonuses for existing employees.

“It’s very competitive,” she said. 

Brookins said UPEI is the province’s only nursing school and produces only about 50 graduating nurses a year, and “that’s not a lot to come in when you’ve got 300 holes in the system.”

The province thus has to recruit from other nursing schools in the Maritimes. “If we don’t have a competitive package, they’re not going to pick P.E.I.”

Nurses union
The province and nurses’ union have been negotiating a new contract for about 20 months. (Laura Meader/CBC)

In the shorter term, the union has questions about summer staffing for 2023. Brookins said the union is asking the province “every week” to share its summer plan. 

“Last summer, by the time we were able to implement an agreement with the government, it was the end of June. And so by that time, anyone who was looking at picking up [shifts] has either picked up in the private sector or has just said, ‘OK, fine, I’m going to make my own summer plans.'”

Health P.E.I. looking for alternatives

In an email to CBC, Health P.E.I. said it has used travel nurses from three agencies “sparingly” in the past year “to supplement and maintain services when our local staffing is not enough, or to supplement to allow more vacations for existing permanent staff.”

A spokesperson says the agency has taken steps to lessen the use of nursing agencies “by asking leaders to continue to actively recruit for any vacancies, continue to offer shifts to internal staff first, and reach out across the organization via an expression of interest to attempt to fill the shifts with internal resources.

“In addition, Health PEI has entered into arrangements to provide additional premium pay to further incentivize our current nursing staff (including RNs, LPNs, and RCW/PCWs) in critical areas to pick up additional shifts,” the statement said.

Health P.E.I. spent $670,000 on travel nurses in 2021-22. It said that number is expected to be higher in 2022-23.

Up to $100 an hour

Eliza Estrella, managing directing of EZcare nursing agency in Scarborough, Ont., said she has about 1,000 nurses on her roster and would be happy to send some to P.E.I.

She said while the most experienced travel nurses can make up to $100 an hour, they offer a much-needed service — usually without benefits afforded to hospital nurses. She is sometimes concerned about the criticism they face, though.

“They work very hard,” Estrella said. “Sometimes the hospital staff are kind of very jealous of the travel nurses because they think they’re making [more] money.”

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