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‘People have threatened to beat us’: Prince Rupert nurses face staffing shortages and violence

Prince Rupert nurses are asking North Coast MLA, Jennifer Rice, for more support to help address violence against its members and the staffing crisis.
The BC Nurses Union is calling on MLAs for support to address the staffing crisis and violence against staff. Nurse Angie Z. gets a thumbs up from Delores Campbell at the Prince Rupert community vaccination clinic in March 2021. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View.

Prince Rupert nurses are asking North Coast MLA, Jennifer Rice, for more support to help address violence against its members and the staffing crisis.

The BC Nurses’ Union (BCNU), on Feb. 3, called for its membership to ask their local MLAs to address key challenges their regions are facing.

“There are serious overreaching issues throughout the health care system, such as a critical shortage of nurses, continued exposure to violence in the workplace and the worrying decline of mental and physical health among nurses,” BCNU President, Aman Grewal, said. “By sharing stories and specific issues from their ridings, MLAs are hearing about the harsh reality faced by nurses and patients who reside and work in their constituency.”

Teri Forester, regional BCNU council member for the Northwest, sent a letter to Rice outlining key issues facing nurses in Prince Rupert and the Northwest, which included the lack of staff, not enough funded nursing seats and unsafe working conditions.

Violence against nursing staff at Prince Rupert Regional Hospital is not a new issue but is something that has previously gone under the radar, Forester said. Throughout the pandemic, violence has seen a significant increase, although she was unable to pinpoint a particular reason or reasons for the uptick.

“We have our nurses being threatened. In the past, we’ve had nurses go out to their vehicles and find they’ve been vandalized,” she said. “For context, people have threatened to beat us. People have threatened to go to our home. People have threatened to do quite a few terrible things. With it being a small town, there is some level of belief to that threat. We’re not in a large urban setting, where nobody knows where we live. We see our patients in the grocery stores [and] downtown.”

“It’s not something we should have to deal with. We go to work to do a job and being threatened is not something we should put up with,” Forester said.

It took a “significant violent incident” a few months ago before a security guard was hired for the premises, she said.

In November, Paladin Security was hired by Northern Health to provide a twenty-four-hour service for the hospital, Rice said. A security staff member now works around the clock, seven days a week, situated in the hospital’s front lobby.

“We did see an uptick in violence towards healthcare professionals throughout the pandemic. In response to that we now have a standard for Northern Health that all level four hospitals have standard security measures in place,” Rice said.

Having hands-on security is not only important for nurses’ own safety, but also for them to be able to maintain their professional-patient relationship.

“If the person needs to be removed from the situation [and security] is able to do that, I can continue caring for that patient without having damaged my rapport with that person — because we want our patients to trust us. If I have to defend myself, that’s going to hurt that relationship,” Forester said.

Having permanent and prominent security going into the future is key to helping nurses be safe, she said.

Another critical issue facing hospitals in the city is current and future staffing.

The public and government have been aware for a long time of the staffing shortage. However, calling it a shortage implies it is temporary, Forester said.

“We’re short at least 25 per cent of our baseline staffing,” she said.

Hospitals don’t have the minimum number of staff to run operations. They rely on overtime and bringing in staff from other areas. This leads to longer wait times and potential cancellation of services, Forester said.

“Nurses are burnt out and they’re tired. They’re working overtime at extraordinary amounts,” she said. “They’re not getting time to relax and recuperate at home because they’re so desperately short. Their phone is going, their email is going, their colleagues are texting them and begging them to come in and help just so that there’s one more nurse — and that’s exhausting,” Forester said.

The solution to the long-term problem is increasing the number of funded nursing seats, she said.

Presently, the region has a nursing program in place through the University of Northern British Columbia and Coast Mountain College.

“Unfortunately, each year, there are only 25 funded seats through the Ministry of Advanced Education,” Forester said.

This isn’t enough to keep the region stocked with the nursing staff. Terrace is getting an updated hospital, which will need 60 new positions, Kitimat needs more nurses and so does Prince Rupert, she said.

“All of us need new nurses and when we are only graduating less than 25 a year, because some don’t graduate, how are we going to fill those gaps long-term,” Forester said. “We need to double or triple the amount of nursing seats that we have in our area.”

Rice said these are some of the issues she has raised in the legislature and will continue to do so.

“I acknowledge that it is really challenging when we have a shortage throughout the province to recruit and retain workers in the North, but in response to that we have recently released $6.85 million towards Northern Health to address some of these challenges,” Rice said.

One example of how the funding has been used is leasing housing units in Prince Rupert for new hires. When new staff arrive in the city they have three months of provided housing until they can find their own. In addition, Rice said they are also looking at expanding childcare spaces for healthcare workers in the Northwest as an incentive for recruiting and retaining staff.

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Norman Galimski | Journalist
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