Across Canada, the number of vacancies for health care positions has increased dramatically during COVID. However, this increase only exacerbates a trend since 2015, whereby the number of vacancies for health care jobs has increased. 

Registered Practical Nurses: RPNs (or LPNs in provinces outside of Ontario) have seen the most rapid percentage increase in the number of vacancies of any occupation reported in Canada, according to a recent Statistics Canada report, with vacancies increasing 94% in one year. 

RPN vacancies in Ontario increased over the same period from 1,715 to 3,700 – an increase of almost 2,000 or 116% in one year, while RN vacancies in Ontario saw a very significant 78% increase. In both cases, this is a more rapid increase than the reported cross-Canada increases. 

While RPN vacancies have exploded during COVID, they also increased very significantly in the years leading up to COVID, gradually creeping up from less than 600 in the first quarter of 2015. In other words, RPN vacancies have increased more than six-fold since 2015. RN vacancies over the pre-COVID period also increased significantly, but not at quite so rapid a pace. 

Based on data from the second quarter of 2021, there was 7.54 vacancies for every 100 RPNs in the workforce. This is similar to the level for RNs – where there are about 8.6 vacancies for every 100 RNs in the workforce. 

The longer-term increase in the number of vacancies is likely exacerbated by a sharp increase in the number of RPNs who are leaving the profession that are under the age of 35. 

Other health care work: There has been a significant increase in vacancies for other hospital occupations in Ontario as well as for RNs and RPNs. Statistics Canada provides details on two significant categories for service and office health care bargaining units: 

[a] “Nurse Aides, orderlies and patient service associates” saw vacancies increase from 4615 (in the first quarter of 2020) to 6915 (in the second quarter of 2021). That is a 50% increase in just over a year. Notably vacancies in these classifications were in the 2,000 area in 2015-2017 quarters, with gradual increases to the 4000 vacancy area in 2019. So this area has also seen, like RPN work, a steady increase in the number of vacancies in the pre-COVID period, with vacancies now over three times the level found in 2015. 

[b] “Other assisting occupations in support of health services” saw an increase from roughly 395 in the first quarter of 2020 to 710 in the second quarter of 2021. That is an 80% increase in just over a year. These classifications saw roughly 250 vacancies reported per quarter in 2015, so they too have seen a very significant increase over the pre-COVID period as well. 

Combining the classifications in [a] and [b] above, we can say that vacancies increased three-fold since 2015. 

In conclusion, the increase in vacancies is very notable: 

  • During COVID there was a 116% one year increase in RPN vacancies in Ontario – 2,000 more vacancies in the quarter. 
  • RPN vacancies are over 6 times higher than in 2015. 
  • Other health care service and office occupations have also seen a significant increase in vacancies – we are currently seeing three-fold the number of vacancies in 2015. 
  • The increasing number of vacancies has been exacerbated by COVID, but this trend also pre-dated COVID. 

Increasing vacancies and younger staff leaving the health care workforce are signs that health care employers are having difficulties attracting staff. While there have been some attempts to increase the number of people trained for health care work, this will be overwhelmed by the need to recruit tens of thousands of extra staff to deal with an aging population. Given plans to increase LTC beds and staffing hours, improving recruitment and retention, should be an urgent issue for government and health care employers. 

To date, however, there is little sign of any urgency to improve wages and working conditions. Indeed, for almost all health care occupations, the plan is to decrease real wages significantly through Bill 124’s three years of wage restraint. The Ford government needs to change direction and improve health care working conditions. It must make hospitals and health care an attractive place to work.