Alberta nurses’ union calls on AHS to bring back paid leave as COVID-19 pandemic continues

A file photo of a nurse.
A file photo of a nurse. Getty Images

A nurses union is calling on Alberta Health Services to bring back a paid leave for nurses who had to isolate because of COVID-19.

David Harrigan, director of labour relations at United Nurses of Alberta — which represents about 30,000 nurses across the province — explained Wednesday that initially during the pandemic, if an employee had to self-isolate, they could do so without losing pay. Harrigan said AHS cancelled that in July.

“We thought things were getting better, but it turns out things are getting worse,” he said, citing outbreaks.

Read more: Alberta sees 143 new COVID-19 cases, 2 additional deaths connected to outbreaks

The union proposes that if employees have to self-isolate, they should not lose income as a result.

The concern is that regular RNs will burn through their sick days because they’re isolating.

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“We don’t want people being reluctant to self-disclose that there’s an issue. Building a disincentive for that, we think, is the exact wrong thing to do,” Harrigan said.

‘Insulting for the staff’

A serious problem is that AHS is not posting vacancies, which means staff is stretched thin, he said.

“They’re working a lot of additional shifts, they’re working overtime and to say to them, ‘By the way, you’re going to suffer financially in addition,’ we just think it’s the wrong thing to do,” Harrigan said.

Read more: Order to reduce COVID-19 spread delayed as Alberta’s nurse union files grievance

In Calgary, about 50 Foothills Medical Centre staff members are self-isolating, he said.

“As long as there [are] going to be outbreaks in acute care hospitals, there needs to be that extension,” he said. “We just don’t have a magic ball that tells us how many weeks or months that might be.”

Read more: Dozens of retired Alberta physicians, nurses signing up to help fight COVID-19

Harrigan hopes that AHS is open to discussion.

“The difficulty with bargaining is the employer has so many rollbacks it’s just so insulting for the staff. We think that at this time, to treat the staff with such disrespect is really a dangerous situation,” he said.

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“There’s just no better way of saying to employees, ‘You’re not valued.’ If anybody should be valuing the employees, it should be health-care employers.”

AHS response

As of Wednesday, AHS is not reinstating nurses’ paid leave.

With the end of the provincewide public health emergency on June 15 and the pandemic stretching on, AHS decided on July 6 to revert to applying the terms and conditions of collective agreements.

Read more: NDP urges Alberta government not to lay off nurses amid coronavirus pandemic, UCP says resources will remain

“All AHS staff who are directed to self-isolate for COVID-19, as per [the chief medical officer of health’s] orders, will be provided sick leave, salary continuance or short-term disability, if eligible under their collective agreement or terms and conditions of employment,” it said.

“The coding for special paid leave was temporarily changed as part of AHS’ COVID-19 response. This went beyond the terms of the collective agreement for a temporary period while we identified all various scenarios and determined how best to deal with them.”

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Read more: Calgary program expands to train more foreign nurses as COVID-19 pandemic continues

AHS said it provides staff with information about workplace health and safety, personal protective equipment and infection control protocols.

“AHS continually promotes awareness around the need for staff to stay home when they are sick, including mandatory daily fit-for-work screening,” it said.

Watch below: Some Global News videos about paid sick leave.