As Quebec health workers' bonuses end, they predict an exodus to the private system

The pandemic isn't really over, say those on the front lines --  even if Quebec is about to do away with its last remaining COVID-19 rule when it makes masks optional in most places as of this Saturday.

But even though nurses, doctors and other health workers are still busy treating patients sick with the virus, and expecting further waves later this year, some health-care bonuses are going away on Saturday too, leaving them worried about a new kind of staffing shortage.

"We're extremely worried that as of May 15, a lot of people who were staying at work to get access to these incentives are going to start calling in sick," said Jessica Goldschleger of the CSN union. 

That could create a ripple effect for people in need of care, says patients' rights advocate Paul Brunet.

"It's longer at the emergency ward. It is longer to get a surgery," he said.

Unions are trying to negotiate an extension of the bonuses to keep their workers on the job -- at least the public side of the job -- they say.

"The biggest issue is our staff -- we're missing too much staff, we need to attract people into the system," said Goldschleger.

"Right now, private services are much more interesting to the staff, so people are moving out of the health-care system and it's an issue."

The decision to end the bonuses was a long time coming, said the health ministry.

“We have always said these were temporary bonuses," it said in a statement.

"This decision was taken in line with the current situation of the pandemic, which is improving."

Brunet says he still wants to see a different allotment of public funds, considering the context.

"[If] you're giving billons of dollars to Bombardier, don't tell me you cannot make an effort towards the employees," he said.

"If you're saying that long-term facilities are important and elders are important... if you're not going to make these calls to show us you really care, we're not going to believe you."

The workers who spoke to CTV News said that the upshot of it all is that they're bracing for what they expect will be a tough summer, both for them and for people who are patients in the next few months.

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