Addressing working conditions top priority as new agreement ratified: Nursing home union

N.B. nursing home workers and province focusing on improving work conditions
WATCH: Contentious negotiations between New Brunswick’s nursing home workers and the province are over. As Silas Brown reports, now both sides say the focus will shift to improving working conditions inside nursing homes.

After an overwhelming majority of nursing home workers ratified the tentative agreement reached between the New Brunswick Nursing Home Association and union negotiators, the president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Homes Unions (NBCNHU) says the union’s focus will now shift to addressing working conditions in nursing homes.

“Does the tentative agreement show our worth or compensate us for our worth? Absolutely not. Do we deserve more? You betcha,” said Sharon Teare, president of the NBCNHU.

“But we do know that we have bigger issues that brought us to where we are today … the working conditions.”

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As part of the Letters of Agreement included in the deal a stakeholder committee will be struck to study how to improve working conditions, something the union says is partly behind the recruitment and retention issues faced by many homes. Recommendations will be sent to the Department of Social Development.

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Teare says she’s confident the association, the province and the union can work together to improve the working conditions in homes and therefore the experience for seniors living in them.

“At the end of the day, although we’re coming at it from different directions, our common interest is the residents,” she said.

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Premier Blaine Higgs is also confident that the issue of working conditions can be addressed.

“I’m as much focused on how do we make the workplace better, how do we make it a better place to work and live? So, it’s not all just about the money. I believe the leaders want us to do just that — they want us to be serious about ‘how do we make it better?'” Higgs said.

Read more: Voting on final contract for New Brunswick nursing home workers stopped

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The province has stressed the need to balance what they say taxpayers can afford throughout negotiations. Ultimately Higgs believes that balance was achieved.

“I think it’s a very fair agreement and it recognizes the role they played during the pandemic. I can’t say enough about our nursing home workers and how safe our elderly have been in those homes,” Higgs said.

“It’s important to reflect the balance between paying the right amount and how much we can tax people, because that’s where it comes from.”

Workers at 46 of the province’s 51 unionized nursing homes voted to ratify the agreement, while six voted to reject it. The union will be discussing next steps with the six who voted against, which could include a return to the bargaining table.

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The six-year agreement is retroactive to 2016 and runs until October of 2022 and will see a 9.75 per cent increase in wages over that span, including a .5 per cent bump in each of the last two years in recognition of the extra work done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The agreement is not too far off from the 5.5 per cent pay increase over four years included in the province’s final offer last fall, which also would have axed two sick days.

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But Teare says workers will keep their sick days, which she calls a key win for the union.

Normally collective bargaining agreements are negotiated for four years, but Teare said this agreement was extended to six in order to provide some stability for workers and the association. A four-year agreement would have expired in October, forcing both sides immediately back to the bargaining table.

The province’s unionized nursing home workers had been without a contract since the previous collective agreement expired in 2016. A previous tentative agreement for four per cent wage increases over four years was rejected by union locals in 2018.

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The often contentious labour negotiations resulted in regular protests. Workers voted overwhelmingly to strike in March of 2019, but before workers could walk off the job the province received a court injunction blocking the strike. That spawned a series of court challenges culminating in the Court of Appeal ruling in favour of the workers.

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In December the New Brunswick Legislature passed a modified version of the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act after a previous version of the legislation was ruled unconstitutional by the labour board. The legislation looks to set out a process to determine what percentage of workers can walk off the job in the event of a strike, but also placed “ability-to-pay” conditions on binding arbitration.

Teare says the union is still in opposition to the law.

“It has not gone away and we haven’t forgotten about that,” she said.

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“We made reference in the tentative agreement that this agreement was reached without giving up our position on Bill 17.”

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The tentative agreement allows for a period of labour peace, but Teare says preparations for negotiations of the next contract will begin soon. The union will begin preparing proposals for locals to weigh in on in the fall, out of which it will craft its demands for the next round of bargaining.