An amended version of the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act passed through the New Brunswick government’s committee on economic policy on Wednesday night after almost eight hours of debate, averting a potential wintertime election.
The government has until the end of the year to make changes to the act after it was ruled unconstitutional by the labour board, a decision later upheld by two different courts.
If some form of the bill fails to pass, nursing home workers would be able to strike without conditions.
Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard introduced an amendment during committee that would require arbitrators to consider “any other relevant factors” when ruling on a labour dispute. The government amendment was requested by the People’s Alliance, which supported the amendment in a tie vote that had to be broken by committee chair Gary Crossman.
People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin believes the clause balances out the bill and says he will support it when the bill comes to third reading later this week.
The amended bill is intended to lay out a process for determining the number of workers in a nursing home deemed essential in the case of a strike.
It also seeks to place ability-to-pay conditions on binding arbitration. Government says the conditions are necessary to protect the province’s financial stability, while opposition members are calling it an attack on labour.
Last week, Premier Blaine Higgs said he would treat the vote as a matter of confidence, meaning the government would fall if it failed to pass.
Liberal and Green MLAs spoke at length against the bill, even proposing a series of amendments to remove the conditions placed on binding arbitration. Each of those amendments failed, with votes splitting down party lines.
Liberal MLA Guy Arseneault repeatedly raised concerns over the definition of ability to pay and said the amended bill will hurt nursing-home worker recruitment and morale.
“For the people of New Brunswick, in the long run, we’re gonna create more of a problem. We’re not solving a problem with this, we’re creating a problem,” he said.
Shephard said any amendment to remove conditions on binding arbitration would damage the purpose of the bill.
Green MLA Kevin Arseneau raised concerns over the ability to have a free and open discussion on the bill with the premier’s threat to call an election should the bill fail to pass.
The bill will now have to clear third reading before it can receive royal assent and pass into law.