The Alberta government wants to cut the wages of nurses by three per cent to help control spending and the head of the union representing them says that’s a blow to morale already low due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had our leaders in tears talking about the working conditions, the short staffing, the mandatory overtime that is going on, the physical and psychological exhaustion that their members are feeling,” Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, said Wednesday.
The salary rollback proposed by Health Minister Travis Toews and Alberta Health Services is part of ongoing contract negotiations with the union that represents about 30,000 public-sector nurses.
The union said the rollback on top of other demands by the health provider, including reduced shift and weekend premiums, would result in an overall wage reduction of at least five per cent.
In a statement late Tuesday, Toews said the province needs to get its finances “back on track” as it moves beyond the pandemic.
“The need to bring wages in line with other large provinces does not diminish our deep respect for the exceptional work and dedication of public-sector workers,” Toews said.
“It is simply reflective of our fiscal reality, and one that many sectors in the province have experienced.”
Toews also said Alberta nurses make 5.6 per cent more than in other provinces used as comparisons.
“This costs Alberta approximately $141 million per year at a time when our finances are already stretched,” he said.
“The past 16 months have put a considerable strain on the province, following already high levels of debt and deficit.”
Smith acknowledged that nurses are paid more in Alberta, but added that average weekly earnings in Alberta for all occupations are 15 per cent higher.
“Cabinet ministers in Alberta are paid somewhere between 15 to 22 per cent more than their counterparts in comparable provinces,” Smith said.
“I don’t think that is any particular justification for wanting to insult 30,000 nurses or insult health-care workers generally.”
Alberta Health Services recently set up a team to look at recruitment and retention in certain parts of the province.
“Why would government direct them, knowing that there are staffing deficits and issues across the province … to further insult a demoralized and exhausted workforce?” Smith asked.
Both parties are expected at the bargaining table Thursday, she added.
AHS declined to comment on the negotiations and directed questions to the finance minister’s office.
Karen Kuprys, secretary treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said in a statement that the proposed cuts would result in worsening shortages, increased wait times and difficulty attracting and retaining future nurses.
“The rollbacks and potential layoffs proposed at the negotiating table is, at best, insulting. At worst, it is reckless,” said Kuprys, who is also a registered nurse.
“This isn’t a new strategy. We have felt the long-lasting damaging effects from the legacy of the (former premier Ralph) Klein government. The damage it causes takes decades to recover from.”
The provinces has also been in a bitter dispute with doctors for more than a year.
In early 2020, Health Minister Tyler Shandro used a law passed months earlier by the United Conservative government, to unilaterally tear up a master agreement with the Alberta Medical Association and tried to make changes to how doctors are compensated for their services.
In March, the 11,000 physicians represented by the medical association, refused to ratify a tentative deal. They cited distrust of the government as a key factor.
—Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press