A group of nurses organized an information picket in St. Albert on Monday to raise awareness about the province’s proposed wage rollbacks.
United Nurses Local 85, which represents about 400 registered nurses who work at the Sturgeon Community Hospital, organized the event.
“We’re having an information picket today trying to raise awareness about the rollbacks that nurses are facing at the negotiation table,” said Orissa Shima on Monday. Shima is a registered nurse and the local UNA representative at the Sturgeon Community Hospital.
“Nurses have been here on the frontlines working this pandemic for the last 16 months, and we were pretty disheartened and disappointed to see the rollbacks put before us.
“Nurses have been more tired than anything, but these rollbacks have really raised the ire of nurses.”
Earlier this month, the union said employers like Alberta Health Services and Covenant Health are proposing a three per cent salary rollback as the provincial government aims to get its finances sorted.
The union, which represents more than 30,000 nurses in Alberta, said this is on top of other cutbacks like the elimination of semi-annual lump-sum payments as well as reduced shift and weekend premiums.
Shima said nurses’ faith in the provincial government “sure isn’t there.”
“What I’m hearing from my members is that it really is a gut punch or a slap in the face. Nurses feel let down by this government for sure.”
“We need to recruit and retain nurses and you’re not going to do that by telling us we’re worth less. We need to recognize that there’s a shortage. We need more nurses, not less, and we can’t afford to drive nurses out of the province,” Shima said.
“When you don’t have enough nurses, your care is impacted.”
On Friday, Alberta Health Services held a news conference Friday to respond to recent reports from frontline health workers of bed and department closures at several Alberta hospitals.
The Opposition NDP said there have been bed closures, cancelled surgeries or shuttered emergency rooms in communities across the province — including Edson, Grande Prairie, Rocky Mountain House, Cold Lake, Lac La Biche, High Prairie, Slave Lake, Wainwright, Lacombe, Barrhead and Edmonton.
AHS said Friday the current spate of hospital bed closures is minimal, not unusual and isn’t affecting patient care.
Deb Gordon, the chief operating officer for AHS, said more than 98 per cent of beds in acute and emergency care are available provincewide.
Gordon said there are only two locations — Fort Vermilion and Elk Point — where emergency services have closed and forced patients to be diverted elsewhere at certain times.
Gordon said beds open and close routinely to respond to patient and staffing needs and that is common to every health system.
She added that COVID-19 has proven a challenge, noting staff worked harder and longer during the pandemic and may not always be available now for summer relief as in years past.
But she stressed it’s not affecting patients.
But the United Nurses of Alberta and the Opposition NDP say that data doesn’t match the reality on the ground.
“There are beds closing at the Sturgeon Hospital due to nursing shortages on one of our in-patient units,” Shima said. “That isn’t normal here.”
In a July 6 statement, Finance Minister Travis Toews commended the “invaluable role” nurses have played in the COVID-19 pandemic but noted Alberta needs to get its finances back on track.
“On average, Alberta nurses make 5.6 per cent more than in other comparator provinces. This costs Alberta approximately $141 million per year at a time when our finances are already stretched,” he said.
“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.
“It is simply reflective of our fiscal reality and one that many sectors in the province have experienced.”
Premier Jason Kenney said July 12 that the province will reallocate saved dollars directly to patient care.
“Any dollar that we save in collection bargaining negotiations — or for that matter, in a new agreement with the medical association — 100 per cent of those savings would be kept in the health system to improve patient care.”
Pollster Janet Brown said timing is everything for the UCP and how it tackles tough budget issues.
“It seems harsh that the government is going after nurses in the middle of a pandemic. It’s the middle of a pandemic but it’s also the dog days of summer,” she said Monday.
“This is maybe a good time to take on a hard issue — when the public is preoccupied.”
A three-per cent pay cut is the starting point of negotiations, she said.
“They know that it’s going to upset union leaders. They’re probably going to enjoy watching union leaders get upset about it.”
Brown thinks the UCP may sometimes intentionally bait unions, hoping to spark aggressive responses.
“The public really doesn’t like the idea of militant unions,” she said. “I think sometimes the provincial government sees it as a smart tactic to stir up the unions, let some of the more militant people in the unions look unreasonable and the government can maybe have a victory there.”
The labour negotiations with nurses will eventually lead to arbitration, Brown said.
“The likely outcome is a pay freeze. And a pay freeze will probably sound fair to most Albertans.
“When we ask people about public sector salaries — particularly nurses’ salaries — Albertans are reluctant to say nurses are overpaid. Most people think that nurses are fairly paid.
“But at the same time, the province has been talking a lot about the fact that our salaries are higher than other comparable provinces and they need to get spending down, so Albertans are hearing all of those messages,” Brown added.
“I think the nurses are wise to be doing their own campaign about their own issues because nurses’ issues go beyond just money.
“The government’s got this lens towards getting a deal in place with the nurses before the next election. And they’ve got to play their cards so that they will ultimately get the best deal they can get.”