FREDERICTON -- The union representing registered nurses in New Brunswick is concerned about the level of casual staff in nursing homes.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation inside long-term care homes has been difficult for residents. Having familiar staff is critical and the union wants there to be more full-time members.

Since March, families across the region have been cut off from seeing their loved ones in long-term care homes by restrictive visitor policies put in place to protect residents from COVID-19.

More than ever, residents have relied on familiar staff.

"We know that seniors in long-term care facilities, they do suffer from depression and isolation, especially under situations like COVID," said Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union. "So to have that same familiar face or faces coming in day after day, I think it does help our seniors in those living conditions."

But the Nurses Union of New Brunswick says too few of those faces are familiar, and too many are casual or part-time staff who don't have consistent schedules.

"I think a very big part of it is financial, obviously," Doucet said. "The other mentality is that OK, in a situation, or in a city, where you might have a hospital and a number of nursing homes, well the nursing homes will say it's better to take somebody casual than to not have anybody at all."

While there's a shortage of registered nurses across New Brunswick, the union says the situation in long-term care homes is particularly alarming.

For example, the union says there were 42 registered nurse vacancies in long-term care homes last year.

Of those, only nine were filled, leaving the rest of the work -- or 79 per cent -- completed by casual workers.

Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard says staffing is the responsibility of the individual home, but she is aware of staffing challenges, and there are "various factors" that lead to hiring casual workers.

"The very nature of a 24/7 operation requires a combination of full-time, part-time and casual staff to ensure complete shift coverage," Shephard said. "Also, some employees prefer to work casual hours for a variety of reasons; some staff may have children at home, some may be easing into retirement."

She also said that the pandemic has halted efforts to recruit internationally and that some staff who have had to be tested for COVID-19 can be off for several days, awaiting results.

"COVID and coronavirus has really put a spotlight on our most vulnerable population," Doucet said.

Doucet says she's speaking out on this now -- hoping to improve the situation before the next wave of COVID-19.

The New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes says staffing levels have not undergone any recent changes and specifically have not changed as a result of the pandemic.

They also question the numbers provided by the nurses union and say they disagree that the homes are being run almost entirely on casual labour.

In an e-mailed statement, the NBANH said: "We are unable to respond to the numbers on 'hiring forecasts' as NBANH does not produce forecast data, but does monitor vacancy data in the homes every six months. For this reason, we question the source of the numbers being referenced and do not agree that nursing homes are being run almost entirely on casual labour. Wages for RNs in nursing homes are built on the same scale of RNs who work in hospital so are directly comparable."