Anaïs Desautels thought she had found the perfect balance in her life.
After working as a full-time nurse for three years, she burned out during the first wave of COVID-19.
When she returned to work in the intensive care unit at the Montreal General Hospital, she went down to three days a week.
Desautels had taken on another part-time job in a nail salon, and she felt the two jobs complemented each other.
“I had really found the right balance: a job that was fun and a job that makes me feel like I make a difference in the lives of others,” she told CBC in an interview.
Now that balance is gone.
Desautels handed in her notice at the General earlier this month, after she was told she would have to increase her workload if she wanted to stay on.
It’s because of a clause in the collective agreement signed between her union, the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), and the government last fall that requires all part-time nurses in the public system to work at least 14 shifts over a 28-day period.
For many, that represents a doubling of their current workload.
There are a few exceptions, for nurses over 55 for example, but none of them apply to Desautels. The change meant she would have to give up her job at the nail salon.
She tried to find alternatives, but the hospital’s human resources department said its hands were tied by the collective agreement.
“I felt pissed,” she said. “I felt I was losing control over what I wanted to do in life.”
Desautels finally decided to leave nursing altogether so she could continue her work at the nail salon, which she described as “a passion.”
CBC spoke to her on the day of her last shift at the hospital.
The increased workload for part-timers has been phased in at hospitals across Quebec since the fall. At most anglophone institutions in Montreal, it takes effect this week.
In recent weeks CBC has spoken to six other part-time nurses at various Montreal hospitals who are in the same situation as Desautels.
Some have decided to take a year’s unpaid leave of absence as a temporary measure, and others are going to try the increased workload and see how it goes.
And some, such as Desautels, are quitting, all because of a measure the government and the union said would recruit and retain much-needed nurses in the public system.
‘I cried. I cried a lot’
CBC spoke to another part-time nurse who gave her notice earlier this month. She didn’t want to be identified because of concerns about her career prospects if she ever decides to return to the public system.
She works at an institution that’s part of the West Island health agency, the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal.
She’s been a nurse for 13 years. She started working two days a week in 2018, when her first child was born.
She was told in January that as of April she’d have to double her workload.
“I cried. I cried a lot. I felt devastated. I was in shock when I found out,” she told CBC in an interview.
“I felt like I was ripped off of my choice,” she said. “I was part-time for a reason.”
Spending time with her sons, who are two and four, is her priority, she said.
This nurse said she tried to work out a solution with the CIUSSS’s human resources department.
She offered to take a year’s unpaid leave.
“I told them it’s not that I don’t want to work, but I can’t work this many hours right now,” she said.
The CIUSSS refused, because the nurse wanted to start her unpaid leave in June so she could spend the summer with her kids.
The health agency said she could only start the leave in September because she would be needed during the busy summer period when many nurses are on holiday.
That was the last straw.
“I am resigning because it’s too much,” she said. “It’s literally like they make you choose, you know, your work or your family.”
She’s decided to take some time off for now, but she hopes to return to the public system one day. She’s also hopeful the government and the union might find a way to loosen the rules.
Union says small number of nurses affected
A spokesperson for the FIQ said the union couldn’t comment on individual cases. But in previous stories, the FIQ has told the CBC that most nurses in the system welcome the change.
The measure was part of the collective agreement members ratified last fall.
Nurses CBC spoke to noted that only 54 per cent of nurses voted in favour of that agreement, and that the forced workload increase wasn’t clearly explained.
The union said the measure will help maintain better continuity of care, make scheduling for part-time nurses more predictable, and most of all, reduce forced overtime.
Desautels said forced overtime is definitely a problem in the health-care system but not at the MUHC, where she worked.
“In the English system, we don’t have forced overtime. So this measure is not going to help us. It’s a measure for a problem that we don’t have at the MUHC,” she said.
Desautels and other nurses CBC spoke to said they wished the measure could have been voluntary or applied on a case-by-case basis.
But it’s being applied to all part-time nurses in the public system across Quebec, with a few limited exceptions.
The union acknowledged the measure may have certain negative impacts for a small number of members but said “collective bargaining is not a perfect exercise.”
Head nurse says change is driving some nurses away
CBC spoke to the head nurse of a department at another institution that’s part of the West Island CIUSSS, who said this change is making her job more difficult.
She also asked that we protect her identity.
The nursing manager said at least one nurse on her team is seriously considering quitting, while a couple of others are taking unpaid leave.
“I don’t know why the union agreed to this,” the manager said.
“The union is supposed to be representing their members. Not all of their members want to work full time. Not all of them can work full time,” she said.
“You have nurses who are now contemplating leaving the public system to go to the private,” she said.
“It feels like we’re driving them away with these measures.” she said. “We should be doing everything possible we can to keep them employed.”
The Health Ministry didn’t respond to CBC’s request for comment for this story but said last month that it is “confident that this measure will not have a deterrent effect on nursing staff.”