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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Nurses, health-care workers in U.S. jobs struggle with red tape

By Chris Morris
Canadian Press

A tangle of tough new visa requirements could leave U.S. hospitals hurting for Canadian nurses and health-care workers.

Hospital administrators across the United States are panicking as the July 26 deadline looms closer when foreign health-care workers, including Canadian nurses, will be required to meet stringent new requirements for work visas.

Large Canadian labour pool

U.S. hospitals near the border are especially worried that the large Canadian labour pool they depend upon for nurses and other health-care workers will be swamped in a sea of red tape imposed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"It's a huge problem here in Maine because all of our hospitals near the border employ quite a number of Canadian nurses," said Steve Leavett of the Maine State Nurses Association.

"The hospitals are concerned that if these nurses don't cross over, they won't be able to fill their shifts."

Leavett said state politicians across the U.S. are pressuring Washington to extend the deadline.

"It's the government that isn't processing the material quickly enough," he said.

Under the new visa rules, passed last September, foreign nationals working in health care must obtain a certificate stating that they have education, training and experience comparable to the requirements for U.S. health-care workers.

They also must prove they are proficient in the English language. As well, nurses have to write and pass a U.S. examination.

The rules apply to seven health-care professions: registered nurses, medical lab technicians, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, speech audiologists and physician assistants.

It does not apply to physicians.

Many Canadian health-care professionals have been working for years in the U.S. under so-called Trade NAFTA status.

The special status, which vanishes on July 26, exempted them from the certification required of workers from other countries.

Paula Garant, from Edmundston, N.B., has been crossing the Canada-U.S. border for years under Trade NAFTA status to work at the small hospital in Fort Kent, Maine.

Garant fulfilled all the requirements for the new visa, including sending off her old high school diploma as required by U.S. authorities.

Now all she can do is wait, and worry.

"I won't be able to cross," she said when asked what will happen on July 26 if she doesn't have her visa.

"I won't be able to work. That means no income. Working in the States is not like working in Canada. We don't have unemployment."

While there are no concrete numbers, the American Hospital Association estimates 13,000 to 15,000 health- care workers may be affected by the new federal rules.

Officials in Michigan estimate that 3,000 Canadian workers commute daily to work in state facilities.

In Detroit, health-care organizations have joined forces to help their Canadian staffers get through the certification process.

Many hospitals have offered to pay the costs associated with preparing for the examinations and getting the documentation necessary for the new visa.

"I think it works out to a cost of about $650," Leavett said. "Hospital administrators have done their part."

But hundreds of workers are still waiting for visas.

Beth Oates of the Oakwood Health System in Detroit, said 11 of their workers are still waiting for certification.

Vacation time

"We've arranged for non-certified workers to take vacation time until their documentation comes through," Oates said. "We're assuming the delay will be short."

Leavett said there is a serious and growing shortage of nurses in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an additional 120,000 trained registered nurses are currently needed in the U.S.

That figure, according to the U.S. labour department, could mushroom to 800,000 in the next five to eight years.

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