MONTREAL -- They may be seen as the heroes of the pandemic, but nurses were in short supply at Quebec hospitals even before COVID-19.

Now, their unions say, with forced overtime, limited vacation and an impossible workload, they’re simply wearing out. 

"On a daily basis, they’re telling us ‘We can’t keep this rhythm, we can't keep this pace,’” said Roberto Bomba, a spokesperson for the FIQ union, which represents many nurses.

FIQ is locked in contract negotiations with the province, and Bomba said those negotiations are going very poorly.

Premier François Legault has said the government can’t afford to do two things at once, and there will have to be a chocie—reduce nurses’ workloads, or raise their salaries.

“We cannot make financial efforts to bring down the number of working hours, and at the same time give pay increases more than the inflation rate,” Legault said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Everyone is making sacrifices in the pandemic, he suggested. 

Quebec is “going to have a deficit of $15 billion, so it's going to take us five years before reading budgetary balance,” he said. “We’ll need some significant efforts.”

However, nurses aren’t happy with that answer. Their contract negotiations began about a year ago, months before the pandemic, and they have been staging frequent protests to draw attention to their concerns.

In one recent protest, nurses posed with cutouts representing all the patients a night-shift nurse is expected to care for—on her own.

On Monday, two groups of nurses briefly blocked major bridges in Montreal and Quebec City.

“Too often it’s the case that there's one registered nurse or one licensed practical nurse for 100, 110, 120 patients, which is totally unacceptable,” said Rocha.

Rocha said that while the government pours money into infrastructure and construction, the workers in the health-care sector, who are largely women, are drowning in overwork.

Quebec nurses were angry enough to be organizing street protests even in late February, before the pandemic arrived.

Opposition parties backed the nurses this week, saying they have serious concerns for nurses’ well-being.

“Honestly, it is unbelievable for me that in the middle of a historic crisis of health care, the government is not listening more closely to what those women are saying,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a co-leader of Quebec Solidaire.

“Why do they have to protest, why do they have to walk on bridges, in order for Francois Legault to change his position on the working conditions?”

The Quebec Liberals, meanwhile, are calling for an independent commission to study the province’s pandemic response and to learn from the administration’s mistakes.

“The lack of preparation for the second wave has led us to a situation where things are not properly managed right now,” said Liberal leader Dominique Anglade.

“They're out of control and they need to get this under control, but this is a lack of preparation that's leading us to this.”

Nurses say their protests will continue in various forms. This weekend, nurses have refused to work any mandatory overtime.

Watch the video above for Emily Campbell's full report.