Ontario promised $5K to pandemic-weary nurses like her. She says the pledge 'has been broken'

Several nurses promised at $5,000 retention bonus by the province say they have not received any or all of their money, months after the government told them they qualified. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Several nurses promised at $5,000 retention bonus by the province say they have not received any or all of their money, months after the government told them they qualified. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Melissa Brown was supposed to get the first instalment of a $5,000 retention bonus the government of Premier Doug Ford promised her back in late April or early May — part of a $763-million initiative aimed at slowing the exodus of Ontario nurses who have been on the front lines of the pandemic.

Nearly eight months later, she's still waiting.

Brown, a nurse at a walk-in clinic attached to a pharmacy in Barrie, Ont, has administered COVID-19 shots, performed PCR tests for symptomatic patients, cared for people very sick with the novel coronavirus and even helped out in a long-term care home during the worst of the pandemic.

"I was in the trenches," said Brown. "I was in the thick of it and ... to have to actually chase after this bonus, it's to the point where it's insulting."

The first instalment of the retention bonus was due in the spring, the second in September, but like many other nurses CBC Toronto spoke to, she says the money never arrived and the government is providing no estimate for when it will, despite confirming in an email sent to these nurses weeks ago that they qualified.

Brown is not alone. While some nurses received the bonus, several of Brown's peers are still waiting. CBC Toronto spoke to half a dozen nurses across the province in the same boat. Two nurses' associations say they are fielding calls from members who have been given no date to expect the money.

Submitted by: Melissa Brown
Submitted by: Melissa Brown

Brown says she loves being a nurse, but she's among the many who have thought about leaving the profession over the last couple of years when she's come home stressed and exhausted.

"It's been a difficult time for us," she said, and while she says she appreciated the idea of a little extra cash, unsuccessfully chasing down what she was promised has made her feel worse.

Ministry gives no answers, no end in sight to waits

CBC Toronto requested a short interview with Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones over a two-day period this week, but she did not make herself available.

CBC News also asked the Ministry of Health about the delays, but the ministry did not answer questions about how many nurses are still waiting or provide additional information.

"This funding has been distributed across the province. Those who have concerns about payments are encouraged to engage with their employers to seek additional information," a spokesperson said.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press
Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

The nurses CBC Toronto spoke to for this story work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, primary care and community care across the province. They say they still had not received their money two months after the second instalment was due.

Thousands of nurses were told by the Ministry of Health they would be paid by the ministry, not through an employer, because they were working in community clinics, such as family physicians' offices, specialists' clinics and publicly funded Teletriage services.

In emails sent to several nurses by the Primary Health Care Branch of the Ministry of Health at the end of October and viewed by CBC Toronto, the ministry tells applicants they have qualified but technical issues on the Ministry's platform Citizen Direct has delayed the process.

The ministry cited emails applicants sent with essential information that had been accidentally deleted, requiring some to resubmit. The email acknowledged that 3,000 nurses employed in community settings alone could be in this situation.

These nurses were told "It is not possible to estimate how long this process will take."

However, the ministry did not in any way acknowledge to CBC Toronto that the roll-out has been flawed.

'Another nail in the coffin'

Angela Preocanin, a registered nurse and the vice president of the Ontario Nurses' Association, says the government has been made aware of the issues with the rollouts for months and says the province has told the union it would look into them.

Preocanin says she is hearing from nurses from all sectors who qualify, but have been offered no estimate of when their money is coming.

"It's just another nail in the coffin of how we've been treated … We're feeling very deflated, very disrespected," she told CBC Toronto.

Ontario Nurses' Association
Ontario Nurses' Association

Preocanin says nurses feel even worse after months of fighting the law commonly known as Bill 124, legislation the Ford government passed in 2019 to cap wage increases for public sector workers, including nurses, at one per cent per year.

She says the bonus, even for those who have received it, has done nothing to help retention and was already "crumbs … a way to distract us from the bill."

The law was struck down late last month by an Ontario Superior Court judge, who found it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But the government says it intends to appeal the decision.

A 'toxic recipe'

Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, says nurses appreciate the idea of a bonus, but it won't flip the switch on the nurse exodus.

"One single strategy will not be the magic one. This does not replace the need for the premier to not appeal Bill 124," she said.

"Capping of compensation at one per cent is a toxic, toxic, toxic recipe for creating instability, and the exodus of nurses which is happening," said Grinspun.

The troubled retention bonus rollout aside, assuring nurses the court's decision to strike down the bill won't be appealed by the government would do more than a bonus ever could, she said.

Sara Frizzell/CBC
Sara Frizzell/CBC

Neither association was certain how many nurses are still waiting.

Some, like Brown, say they've tried everything to find out when this money is coming. She says it's all been to no avail, leaving her at a loss.

"It's not a large sum of money to thank us for all the hard work that we've done throughout the pandemic," said Brown.

"It's a promise that was made and has been broken."