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Nurses leaving Canada doubled in the last five years amid health-care crisis

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The number of Canadian nurses getting the paperwork required to work in the United States has more than doubled to almost 1,700 in the last five years, contributing to a staffing shortage that is a major factor behind closed emergency rooms and hospital wards, according to numbers obtained by CTV News Investigates.

More nurses, frustrated with a legislated wage cap in Ontario, are being lured to facilities in the U.S. with higher wages, perks and bonuses that some say they can’t get at home, with many getting snapped up in an international competition for health-care workers that are comparatively scarce because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even the full-time permanent roles are paying a good $15-$20 more than what you would make in Canada, and then the sign-on bonuses, $10,000, $20,000, assistance with housing and relocation -- all of that is typically part of the package,” said Samantha White with Intellistaff Medical, a Toronto recruitment firm.

White said she has seen a major increase in Ontario nurses looking to move south in the last two years, especially since the passing of Bill 124, a law that limits wage growth in the public sector to one per cent a year for three years.

“It’s a lot more lucrative than it is up here in Canada, specifically Ontario, where you’ve seen the rates not go up because of Bill 124,” White said. “It’s definitely been rising over the last two years for sure.”

NURSES CITE STRESS, PAY AS A REASON FOR LEAVING

A part of this exodus is Emily Pyke, an ER nurse in Toronto, en route to Florida after what she described as a year of stressful shifts and unsafe patient ratios, caring for as many as six patients at one time.

Pyke says she’s emotionally drained and worried about being put in a position where a patient could have a negative outcome.

“As a nurse, you go into the profession, you want to help people. You want to make a difference and sometimes you feel like with such lack of resources and everything, you’re not able to do your job the way you want to even though everyday you’re trying 110 per cent,” she said.

“With cost of living, all of that, it’s impossible to continue to work with such a wage,” Pyke said.

ER Nurse Emily Pyke speaks to CTV News Toronto Investigates about Ontario's nursing shortage.

Damilola Ola-Adigun, a NICU nurse who previously worked in Toronto, told CTV News she now works in Syracuse, New York.

Ola-Adigun said she didn’t realize how strained Ontario’s health care was until she worked in the U.S.

“Everyday you go to work, you’re working understaffed, your license is on the line,” Ola-Adigun told CTV News in an interview.

“In America, there’s a lot more support and incentive. They understand that you have a life, you have kids, and that’s the biggest benefit,” she said.

“I was mind-blown by the amount these nurses are allotted to come into work when they’re not supposed to. It shows the respect they have for them. I’ve never seen that in Ontario. I’ve never seen that in Toronto. You want me to come back? There’s no way,” she said.

U.S. AGENCY TRACKS CANADIAN FIGURES

CTV News Investigates asked several health-care organizations, regulators and government bodies in Ontario how many nurses had left the province, but none were able to provide detailed figures. The U.S. state department did not provide a breakdown of workers coming in under a free-trade agreement.

But the U.S.-based Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS), a not-for-profit organization, does keep track of the number of nurses applying to transfer their credentials as they get visas to work in the U.S.

CTV News requested data from CGFNS, revealing 801 Canadian nurses applied to transfer their credentials to the U.S. in 2018, rising to more than 1,300 in 2019. The numbers dropped in the pandemic, hitting 947, but started rising again to almost 1,700 in 2022 with the year not out.

Frank Mortimer of CGFNS said the number of Canadian nurses approved to work in the U.S. has doubled over the last five years and could be at an all-time high.

“The pattern that we’re seeing is that it’s increasing year-over-year,” Mortimer said. “I think the opportunity and the financial rewards of migrating is probably the driving factor.”

Statistics provided by the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS) show Canadian nurses are leaving for the U.S. in droves.

6,000 MORE HEALTH-CARE WORKERS

Ontario’s Ministry of Health told CTV News in a statement its retention plan includes 6,000 more health-care workers, $34 million to increase enrolment in nursing programs, and international recruiting.

“Over 1,000 internationally educated nurses have been deployed to hospitals across Ontario to gain the language and practice experience they need to become practising nurses in Ontario,” says the statement.

Paying nurses more to retain them amid the international competition for workers was not mentioned in the statement.

Some recent nursing graduates are already thinking of leaving, said Pyke, meaning that the lure of the U.S. could undermine some of these measures.

“A lot of the new grads who are just starting are leaving right away,” she said.

A registered nurse takes a moment to look outside while attending to a ventilated COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at the Humber River Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Tuesday, January 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

BILL 124 FACES COURT CHALLENGE

A coalition of some 40 Ontario unions has taken the Ontario government to court over the wage cap, arguing that it infringes on a union’s constitutional right around collective bargaining.

Projections released by the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario estimate that if a court ruled the law unconstitutional, the cost to the province would be $8.4 billion

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