Surrounded by nurses and therapists working at the Dartmouth General Hospital, Premier Tim Houston and Health Minister Michelle Thompson announced $10,000 retention bonuses aimed at stemming the rising tide of departures among burnt out front-line workers. 

For 11,000 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, and nurse practitioners working in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools the cheque should be in the mail within the next month. 

“The challenge to us is how can we show nurses and health care professionals the same level of commitment you show us — how can we say thank you?” said Houston “How can we recognize your sacrifice and say as long as you keep working in the Nova Scotia health care system, your government will have your back. We will do what we can.”

The government is finally putting some money where its mouth is. In addition to the $10,000 the government is offering immediately, nurses who sign an agreement next March will receive another $10,000 if they promise to stay and work two more years, until 2026. 

“Bonuses and incentives aren’t a silver bullet but they can help keep people on staff and bring others back, which will help fill shifts and support the health care workers already on staff,” said Thompson.

Nurses who have left full-time nursing to retire, or to sign short-term contracts with private companies to travel to work in other provinces, will also be eligible for a $10,000 bonus if they sign the agreement to work in the public system for the next two years. 

The Nova Scotia Nurses Union (NSNU, which represents the majority of nurses in the province) and the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union (NSGEU, which represents nurses at the Halifax Infirmary site) have been advocating loudly for some type of retention pay since early last summer. That’s when, because of nursing vacancies, staffing levels at many Emergency departments dipped to 60-80% of normal levels. 

“I think it’s fantastic news,” said Janet Hazelton, the president of the NSNU in response to the retention pay announcement. “Recognizing nurses that have been nursing for the last two to three years in a very difficult situation is very welcome and I’m sure will be very much appreciated by the nurses.”

Spreading the love

The province has budgeted $134 million over two years for the bonuses paid to nurses. It is also allocating up to $220 million to pay one-time bonuses of $5,000 to 44,000 people who work in all capacities in the public health care system — including paramedics, home support workers, lab and diagnostic technicians, residential care workers, telehealth providers, housekeeping and kitchen staff. 

“It’s money,” said Sherry-Lynn Jessome Campbell, the head Emergency Department nurse at the Dartmouth General Hospital. “I think we deserve the money and I’m glad it is being extended to other health care workers. I hope it will bring back some highly qualified people who have left.”

“I’ve seen single nurses leave this province because they couldn’t afford to live here, with the cost of living and our salary,” continued Jessome Campbell. “I know we lost one girl to Newfoundland who is living in a cottage that they provide for her as a travel nurse (a nurse on short-term contract earning $70-$80 an hour but no benefits). “And while we need travel nurses here because the emergency room is packed all the time, it’s hard to work alongside someone who is probably making triple your salary.”

Jessome Campbell has been a nurse for 34 years, the last 20 in Dartmouth. She is eligible to retire a year from now and admits she isn’t sure whether an additional $10,000 next year will be enough to influence her decision whether to stay or go.

“I have to have faith there are going to be changes in the way health care is delivered,” she told the Examiner. “This nursing shortage and aging demographic was predicted 30 years ago and successive governments knew it and didn’t do anything about it.”.

Thompson said the province could hire 1,500 nurses right now, if they were available. 

The bill for travel nurses was over $20 million in long-term care in 2022 and over $16 million at hospitals for the first eight months of this fiscal year. 

Questions about whether the retention bonuses for nurses and other health care workers will be financed through a potential budget surplus in 2022-23 or paid from money allocated in next year’s budget will be answered later this week, according to Khalehla Perrault, a communications advisor for the department of health. 

Thompson, a registered nurse by training, said the retention bonuses are “a signal we want people to stay” but adds more will be done through contract negotiations (which have begun) to improve work-life balance. 

Thompson couldn’t say how the retention bonuses Nova Scotia is offering compare with incentives provided by other provinces. Preliminary research by the Examiner suggests many provinces are offering Registered Nurses signing bonuses of $10,000 if they agree to come and work for two years.

More health care announcements are expected today. Thompson will hold a briefing about new legislation the government claims “will improve Nova Scotians’ access to care and reduce the administrative burden on health care providers.” And as part of its fundraising campaign, the Dartmouth General Hospital Foundation will announce the largest single donation in its history. 

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. So we appoint a interim head of NS health and Health minister and it takes 15 plus months to figure out to keep people you can pay more money. Maybe if offered 15 months ago, the health care system would not be trying to attract those who left! Not sure money is the entire answer, the nurses and support staff deserve that and more but maybe just maybe adequate staff levels, more family physicians and someone else beside the present NS Health Administration to run the health care system in NS. We need and deserve better than what we are getting.