Nurses in Gatineau are striking for the first time in 25 years as members of the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), a union representing 80,000 health-care workers in the province. They’re calling for better pay, work-life balance and reduced workloads, saying they have reached their limits with how the Quebec government is managing health care.

“They always expect us to do more with less and it’s just not possible anymore,” said Caroline Dufour, a nurse who volunteered on the Gatineau Hospital picket line for all four strike days last month: Nov. 8, 9, 23 and 24.

What do nurses want?

Better pay

  • 6% salary catch-up now
  • 4% annual pay raises over three years

Work-life balance

  • More flexible scheduling options
  • Vacation time extended based on years of service

Reduced workloads

  • No mandatory overtime
  • Safe nurse-to-patient ratios

What is the government offering?

  • 10.3% pay raises over five years
  • One-time $1,000 lump sum

Dufour says she left her nursing job in Gatineau Hospital’s emergency department nearly three years ago due to poor working conditions but returned to support her former coworkers during the strike.

“They didn’t want to give me one day off,” said Dufour of her experience when she was still working at the hospital. “And they were forcing me to work day and night for a few days in a row.”

This was mid-pandemic, and the Quebec government had enacted a special law giving it the power to force health-care workers such as Dufour to work more. Instead of her contracted part-time schedule, she was forced to work full time.

Nearing burnout, she chose to leave Gatineau Hospital for Ottawa’s Montfort Hospital. There, she says she could care for just three or four patients at a time. In Gatineau, she and a licenced practical nurse often had to care for three times as many.

Now a PhD candidate writing a thesis about Quebec’s poor health-care conditions and lecturing at the University of Quebec’s Outaouais campus, Dufour said creating safe worker-to-patient ratios is among the most important changes that need to be made to the health-care system.

Karine D’Auteuil, president of the FIQ’s Outaouais branch, agreed. Safe ratios will reduce medical errors and patient infections, she said, and they will ease heavy workloads, preventing burnout and improving staff retention to keep nurses like Dufour in the system.

Lucie Levesque, a nurse clinician of 25 years who works at the Gatineau Centre of Expertise in Chronic Diseases, said she knows the impact of understaffing and poor conditions all too well. She, too, left Gatineau Hospital’s emergency department mid-pandemic after spending most of her career there, including 12 years as a nurse-in-charge.

Nurse clinician Lucie Levesque picketed at Gatineau Hospital in Quebec on Nov. 23 to demand better work conditions. [Photo © Jennifer Prescott]

Just after she left, the same pandemic law that let the government force more work on health-care workers also allowed it to move them around to different departments and facilities as it saw fit. To cover for Gatineau Hospital’s understaffed emergency department, Levesque was forced to return to work there, along with some of her new colleagues.

This move made nurses work in settings they weren’t experienced in, she said, leading to frustration, work overloads and inconsistent — if not dangerous — care for patients. And it led to more nurses quitting altogether.

Now, the Quebec government wants to make a permanent law just like the one used during the pandemic. For example, it would give the government power to assign a nurse who usually works weekdays in a Gatineau community health centre to the Maniwaki emergency department on Saturday, well over an hour away in a different environment, and back to work in Gatineau on Sunday.

“Already-exhausted nurses will have to perform in places they’re not familiar with,” said Levesque. “As has happened in my department, or would in any other type of profession, more will simply leave the field.”

For nurses in Gatineau, staff retention is especially important, as the Outaouais region was found in 2022 to have the lowest number of nurses per resident in the province, at less than five nurses to care for every 1,000 people.

Keeping and attracting health-care workers to the Quebec system would be easier if they were paid fairly, said D’Auteuil. This is why FIQ members are asking for a six per cent pay raise now, and then an annual four per cent pay raise over three years, totaling 18 per cent. They also want their 3.5 per cent premium increased to six per cent that would only apply to specific workers in certain situations.

D’Auteuil said better pay would also reduce the government’s need to enforce mandatory overtime, which happens when a health-care worker finishes her shift and is forced to stay and work the next shift to cover scheduling gaps. It’s meant to be used in exceptional situations, but the FIQ says this power is abused, further harming its members’ work-life balances.

Health-care workers called for better pay, work-life balance and reduced workloads from the Gatineau Hospital picket line on Nov. 23. [Photo courtesy of Caroline Dufour]

The government said in its contract offer to the FIQ that it can’t afford to give health-care workers more than a 10.3 per cent pay raise, despite Quebec’s leaders voting to give themselves a 30 per cent raise in June, a move that sparked outrage among public service workers.

A spokesperson for Quebec Treasurer Sonia LeBel told Capital Current in French the government’s pay raise was overdue and that “negotiation strategies regarding the issue of mandatory overtime … are confidential.”

Dufour, D’Auteuil and Levesque agreed it’s important now more than ever for the government to listen to health-care workers.

“The FIQ’s requests come from members who are on the floor and who experience work overload day after day,” said D’Auteuil. “We hope the government’s decisions are made with humanity.”

On Nov. 23, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said his government might be willing to pay more, but only if health-care workers give the government more power over “flexibility.” Union members say this proposal will again be met with a resounding “no” from the 80,000-strong who will be back on the picket lines Dec. 11 through 14.