SUDBURY -- Two major labour groups say they have a list of demands the Ontario government should be taking seriously when it comes to supporting nurses in the province.

On Wednesday morning, the groups held a news conference with two Northern Ontario RPNs, one from Sudbury's Health Sciences North and the other from Thunder Bay.

"Post-traumatic stress, exhaustion, increase in workplace violence, the burnout is real and this is our warning," said Sharleen Stewart, president of Services Employees International Union (SEIU).

According to the numbers from Ontario's Emergency Operation, which they quoted, more than 22,000 healthcare workers have contracted COVID-19. According to OCHU's figures, 24 healthcare workers have died from the virus, including a recent retirement home worker.

"One of our core demands here is that nurses and healthcare workers have to have unquestioned access to the N95 or better respirator etc. in dealing with patients who may have or do have COVID," said Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU) president Michael Hurley.

Approaching crisis levels

The labour leaders said Ontario was already facing a nursing shortage before the COVID pandemic and now it's getting to crisis levels.

Karen Brosseau works at Sudbury's Health Sciences North.

"Nursing in these uncertain times has been super challenging in waiting for better protection against the virus, daily protocol changes in different work areas and not always having the same standards of care," said Brosseau.

A nurse for 29 years, she said it's been a rewarding career where she's been able to mentor others. But lately, things have been getting tough.

"The government won't pay us but expects us to work outside our scope of practice, which increases our license to be at risk for what they want us to do, but refuse to pay us," Brosseau said.

Stewart said they've been fighting for pay equity for years, which so far the Ontario government has rejected.

She said RPNs should be paid the same amount as registered nurses (RNs) for the same level of work.

Workloads increasing

"If I could be provided with an equitable wage, full-time job with a full-time schedule at one place of employment, that would be beneficial for my quality of life," said Ashley MacRae, a Thunder Bay-area nurse.

New numbers from a survey done by OCHU found 85 per cent of nurses in northern Ontario have seen an increase in their work over the past year – that's higher than the provincial average.

Northern Ontario nurses also felt patient care was being put at risk. Ninety-seven per cent are concerned they may infect friends and family with COVID-19.

CTV News received a statement from Health Sciences North about the news conference that read, in part:

"Staff safety and well-being at HSN is a top priority … HSN, like other hospitals in the province, follows stringent infection prevention and control policies to ensure the safety of staff so they can be there to provide important care for patients."

There was no response from the Ministry of Health before deadline.