Thousands of Quebec’s unionized nurses are refusing to work overtime on Monday, part of a labour action against workdays they say can often stretch to 16 hours.

The union said more than 70,000 nurses will take part in the protest action, with exceptions being made for emergency situations.

According to the union, 90 per cent of its membership is women, with many of those being single parents. They said that working an eight-hour shift, only to be told near the end that a nurse is obligated to work an additional eight hours causes burnout and leads many young nurses to leave the healthcare network.

“For the healthcare professional, it means you know when you come into work, but you never know when you're going back home,” said union vice-president Denyse Joseph.

As many as 4,000 nurses left the Quebec health network in the last four years alone.

Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann said she understands the nurses’ situation and wants to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.

“Our timeline is this year to improve concretely, greatly, the situation. So we are working right now on the situation and we will make sure it is the priority number one. It is already, for all the organizations in Quebec,” said McCann appeared at Ste-Justine Hospital on Monday morning to inaugurate a new pediatric rehabilitation facility. Still, union officials said that hospital administrators have not stopped forcing nurses to work the OT shifts.

"They know that they're going to have to force overtime," said Joseph. "They're not trying to find solutions because for the past 10 years they're used to saying 'I'll force someone.'"

The Quebec Order of Nurses’ said mandatory overtime “should be an exceptional or emergency measure, but not a management tool to be used to compensate for a foreseeable lack of staff.”

Last Friday, the Labour Administration Tribunal ordered nurses to “unconditionally accept” any request for mandatory overtime from employers in “urgent and exceptional situations.” Nurses would be able to refuse compulsory overtime on other occasions.

The nurses’ union said many facilities have routinely abused their requests for compulsory overtime.

The MUHC has kept overtime to a minimum, but nurses say forced overtime is a problem at Lakeshore General Hospital, Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital and at Saint Mary's Hospital.

McCann has promised to abolish compulsory overtime. In the most recent budget $200 million was set aside to hire more healthcare workers, but the nurses’ union said that since the money was to be spread across multiple professions, it didn’t come close to the $350 million just for nurses they said was necessary to ensure a proper workforce.

- With files from The Canadian Press