The relationship between Quebec’s premier and his “guardian angels” showed further signs of strain on Tuesday as the premier expressed disappointment with a nurses’ union protest in front of his office.
Legault, who repeatedly referred to health workers as “guardian angels” in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, has faced criticism from unions who have accused his government of failing to provide adequate personal protective equipment and of violating nurses’ rights.
While he reiterated his praise for health workers, Legault adopted a less flattering tone in response to the Tuesday morning demonstration.
“Earlier, in front of our offices, the nurses’ union, the FIQ, had a protest. Clearly, that disappoints me,” he said in Quebec City.
Legault said that while nurses are calling for a lower patient-to-worker ratio, which would mean hiring more nurses, a larger problem is that many of the full-time jobs posted have gone unfilled, possibly for reasons linked to salary or because many health workers choose to work part-time.
Legault said he would like to work with the union to find solutions to a lack of full-time personnel, including possible bonuses for those who take full-time jobs, as well as improving salaries for the orderlies and patient attendants who can help ease the burden on nurses.
“I think we can find some common goals, common solutions,” he said, adding “I don’t think it’s time to be on the street in front of my office.”
Roberto Bomba, the union treasurer, says the health-care workers were protesting government actions including cancelling nurses’ vacations and forcing part-time staff to work full-time.
“Our health workers have been there for the health of the population of Quebec, and they’ll continue to be there, however we have to care for their safety and well-being as well,” he said in a phone interview.
The province recorded 570 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, which is the lowest increase since April 11. The number of new deaths has also been trending downwards, with 51 reported Tuesday.
On Monday, Legault said the improving numbers were enough to move ahead with a plan to reopen retail stores in the greater Montreal area next week.
But a day later, he warned he wouldn’t hesitate to reverse that decision if the situation deteriorates.
“The virus is still there, not only in Montreal, and we must continue to protect ourselves and to protect others,” he said.
“If the contagion restarts, we’ll have to put the brakes on the reopening and put Quebec back on pause.”
Legault said many health-care employees who had left work after testing positive for the virus are slowly returning to their jobs. But despite the good news, Legault acknowledged that larger staffing problems loom.
His government hastily hired 10,000 people to work during the pandemic, some of whom need training or don’t have full qualifications. The province is also relying on the temporary help of 1,000 soldiers in the province’s overburdened long-term care homes.
Legault acknowledged that conditions for nurses are “difficult,” noting that thousands of workers have had to stay home sick or in quarantine due to COVID-19, putting pressure on those who remain.
He alluded to difficult negotiations with health-care unions, which have been critical of his government’s handling of the pandemic.
The premier said he would like to negotiate salary increases or bonuses for the positions that are most short-staffed, but he said the unions maintain that similar incentives should be offered to all employees.
The nurses’ union has run scathing radio ads accusing Legault’s administration of sending health professionals to the front lines without adequate protective equipment and forcing part-time workers to work long shifts.
Bomba said the union agrees that more full-time workers are desperately needed and has long advocated for more positions.
However, he said employers have often preferred to offer only part-time work and to rotate teams from place to place — which he said contributed to the spread of the virus.
“All of the sudden because of this crisis, the government is waking up and saying, ‘Wow, we need more full-time positions,’ ” he said.