EDITORIAL: ‘BILL 124 really screwed us’: Ontario’s frontline healthcare workers

Feb 2, 2023 | COVID-19, Editorial

Healthcare staff and public sector workers are still demanding Bill 124 be revoked and abandoned after Ontario Superior Court Justice Markus Koehnen ruled it unconstitutional on Nov. 29, 2022.

The province, however, intends to appeal the decision.

“Bill 124 is gone,” Ford said as he assured the attendees of his first public conference of the new year on Jan. 11, 2023.

Yet, Bill 124 never left. The victims of the bill are not just the workers covered by it, but by extension the general public who are treated by caregivers and taught by teachers.

Kabilani Sivarajah, a Registered Nurse (RN), witnessed the ramifications of the bill on fellow colleagues and her line of work.

“Many health care workers have left for other provinces or for travel nursing assignments, where they are sent to a different province or city with a contract,” she said. “I’m even planning to go to B.C. or Alberta to do nursing because the pay is so much better.

Erin Ariss, vice-president of the Board of Directors for the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA), said Ford’s neglect of healthcare workers was to save tax dollars.

“This just shows me that his agenda is to continue down this road and we will just lose more. We will lose more nurses, more healthcare professionals,” Ariss said. “It’s an insult.”

Bill 124 was legislation passed into law by the provincial government in November 2019 limiting wage increases for public sector employees.

Also known as the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, Bill 124 thresholded pay rises at one percent, from 2019 to 2022.

The bill was ruled unconstitutional by the court for its infringement on workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Public scrutiny intensified following internal documents retrieved by Global News that expressed the province’s awareness of Bill 124’s inability to retain healthcare workers.

Ariss emphasized the public confusion surrounding the province’s handling of the crisis.

“Why would you be appealing oppressive legislation? Wouldn’t you take steps, as the government, to entice people to come into these professions?” she asked.

The court ruling revealed the government’s apparent agenda, suggesting that it intended to extend the spirit of Bill 124 with new legislation after it was scheduled to expire in 2022. That seems to be why the province is appealing Koehnen’s ruling.

Sivarajah said that recent medical graduates, including herself, faced intense shock during the pandemic after entering the workforce under such unusual conditions.

“They are coming into a whole new COVID system, plus a lot of these students had virtual placements. Then they’re thrown into a work environment with not enough staff,” she said. “At the place I work at now, no one knows each other because everyone is new.

“Nurses are dropping like flies,” Sivarajah said.

Ford pointed out various measures during his conference that were overseen by his government to address the staffing shortage.

He said the province hired more nurses than ever as more than 60,000 new nurses have been hired since 2018. Yet labour shortages in hospitals remain, and threaten to worsen with recent moves to open private medical care.

Healthcare workers like Sivarajah are unable to take a single day off due to the shortage.

“Nurses are overworked because they’re short(staffed) and then when they want to take time off to recharge and breathe, they can’t because there’s no nurses,” Sivarajah said.

Ariss also shed light on just how many healthcare workers it would take to just start resolving the shortage.

“We would need another 33,000 registered nurses just to bring us in line with the second-from-last province,” Ariss said. “To put that into perspective, we would need the population of Orangeville in just registered nurses to get us up.”

Labour unions have taken matters into their own hands by vocalizing the demand for resolution.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) launched its Enough is Enough! campaign on Jan. 31, and advocates for Bill 124’s permanent repeal, alongside affordable housing and realistic wages.

Sheree Bond, media relations officer for ONA, announced today plans for province-wide actions involving ONA members to launch province-wide pickets, starting Feb. 23, to back demands for a new contract. We can be certain they are seeking more than one per cent.

Sivarajah emphasized that the bill must remain inactive for any hope at alleviating the staffing shortage in Ontario’s healthcare sector.

“There’s no way to help with the nursing shortage without actually increasing the wage,” she said. “Other provinces have rules set in place in terms of working shorter hours, overtime and vacation days.”

Ariss said that in order for any notable change, the government must listen and prioritize its healthcare workers.

“This is not something Ontario should be proud of,” she said. “I wish there was an end in sight.”

The last quote, however, is left for nurse Sivarajah.

“Bill 124 really screwed us,” she said.