MONTREAL -- After months of working on the front lines against COVID-19, exhausted health-care workers in Quebec are demanding the right to take their summer vacations.

Protesting health-care workers set up tents and camped outside the Montreal Geriatric Institute Tuesday in a demonstration at began at 6.a.m. and will continue until 6 a.m. Thursday with at least six others planned for the rest of the week. The tents are meant to suggest that health-care workers will be forced to camp out at work all summer.

Workers affiliated with the Quebec Interprofessional Healthcare Federation (FIQ), representing 77,000 nurses and respiratory therapists in the province, said they have given their all during this pandemic.

Given the demands of COVID-19, and because they are essential workers, they say many have already been forced to work double shifts, weekends and an excessive amount of overtime on top of giving up their winter and spring vacations under a ministerial order. 

Now, they say, they do not want to have to give up summer vacations as well. 

Since May 19 and in various ways, the FIQ has been demonstrating for this right to vacation, which is included in the collective agreement. A ministerial decree allowed the management of establishments to postpone or limit vacations due to COVID-19.

In an interview on Tuesday, FIQ president Nancy Bedard, confirmed that seven regional and integrated health boards (CISSS or CIUSSS) in Quebec have still not reached an agreement with their respective FIQ unions regarding vacation.

In the majority of cases, among those who have reached an agreement, the parties have agreed on a period of three consecutive weeks of vacation, said Bedard.

Health Minister Danielle McCann has said a few occasions now that nurses will get at least two weeks of vacation this summer to allow them to rest before a possible second wave of COVID-19 this fall. Premier Francois Legault said last week in Joliette also said mathematically, they could not give them more time with current staffing.

The unions worry about a second possible ministerial decree, and say workers who are in areas that are not hot zones should be allowed more time off. 

"We know that they're contemplating a decree at the ministerial level like we've been having the last few weeks, forcing people to work full time," said FIQ treasurer Roberto Bomba. "Part-time workers were forced to work full-time, additional shifts moved from one centre to another, from one institution to another. So this is a (protest) that will be going on for the next few shifts, days, giving a clear message that our health-care professionals are exhausted. They're fatigued, and they deserve a well-rested summer vacation like everybody throughout this society."

Other demonstrations are beginning Tuesday outside the Jewish General Hospital, Verdun Hospital and a long-term care facility in Ile Bizard, representing 56,000 other workers belonging to the APTS union. 

They are also calling for the right to take vacations and denouncing what they describe as gruelling working conditions imposed on them, and they want fair and equitable treatment to get through the crisis.

- With files form The Canadian Press