The United Nurses of Alberta says the province is hiring contract nurses to address severe staffing shortages in hospitals.
The UNA says it received an email from Alberta Health Services’ lead negotiator Kim LeBlanc Friday, notifying the union that “as is our current practice and allowed by the collective agreement, AHS will use contracted resources to address short-term contracting issues” during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the letter, AHS says it will immediately begin working with three staffing agencies: Toronto-based Greenstaff Medical Canada, Northern Nursing Solutions of Airdrie and Brylu Staffing of Vancouver.
As a result, the UNA says AHS is withdrawing its Aug. 16 Labour Relations Board complaint against the association.
AHS alleged in the complaint the union bargained in bad faith by making public statements that AHS was in discussions with Greenstaff Medical Canada and other third-party recruiters to hire registered nurses to work in Alberta at rates significantly higher than those paid under the UNA collective agreement.
A bargaining update published by UNA on Aug. 13 made specific references to pay rates included in postings by Greenstaff Medical Canada.
UNA’s director of labour relations David Harrigan says the email did not indicate the rates AHS expects to pay the staffing agencies for contract nurses, but it’s likely to be significantly more than nurses currently make.
“If you’re a nurse who’s been working 16 hours a day for the past 16 months, and the employer is saying you’re not good enough and I’m cutting your pay, to hear that they’re now bringing in agency nurses, who will earn anywhere from $55 to $75 an hour, which is like $25 more than the top RN makes, there is just no better way for this government to say we have absolutely no respect for nurses,” Harrigan said.
AHS confirmed it’s hiring contract nurses because it’s experiencing significant capacity issues, particularly in intensive care units, which are at 95 per cent capacity.
“We are doing all we can to open additional capacity, however, our biggest challenge right now is finding available health-care workers to staff those surge beds,” said AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson.
“This critical staffing challenge is limiting our ability to open additional beds, which in turn is placing strain on our ability to care for patients.”
Williamson added this is permissible under the existing collective agreement.
The UNA says nurses have not received any pay increases for the past five years. The union is currently in contract negotiations with the province and is seeking formal mediation.