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Northwood staff still waiting on retroactive pay for raise promised in February

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Continuing care assistants working for Northwood in Halifax are still waiting to receive retroactive pay from a raise promised five months ago, a delay the organization attributes to the implementation of its new payroll system.

In February, the Nova Scotia government announced that it would raise the wages of CCAs by about 23 per cent, bringing the top annual salary for CCAs to $48,419, or about $25 an hour.

The province said the pay raise would mean nearly $9,000 more per year for most full-time workers. Previously, CCAs in Nova Scotia were among the lowest-paid in the country.

Read more: Nova Scotia to raise continuing care assistants’ wages by 23 per cent

The raise went into effect on Feb. 10, but at the time, the province said the timing of implementation will be determined by individual employers.

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In the case of Northwood, which is the largest not-for-profit continuing care organization in Atlantic Canada, CCAs didn’t get their raises until June and have yet to receive retroactive pay from the previous four months.

“It really does make them feel disrespected,” said Linda MacNeil, Atlantic regional director for Unifor, which represents some of the CCAs working at Northwood.

“It’s disheartening. It’s very much a letdown.”

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MacNeil said the pay increase announced in February was much-needed and will help address some of the recruitment and retention issues among CCAs, but said Northwood hasn’t implemented it with the urgency it requires.

She noted that Northwood Terrace was the hardest-hit long-term care home in Nova Scotia during the pandemic, with 53 residents having died of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020.

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She added that Northwood is the only home Unifor represents in Nova Scotia where CCAs have not yet received their retroactive pay.

“Ironically, the worst-hit throughout the province, dealing with COVID and the loss of so many residents – which was very traumatizing for every worker in that facility – yet here they are, the only home that that we’re representing, that hasn’t received their retro (pay),” she said.

“They should be bending over backwards to do whatever it takes, to get them their retro, to get money into their hands, because they deserve it just as much as any other worker across the province.”

Read more: Class action lawsuit filed against Northwood for handling of COVID-19 pandemic

Unifor represents 180 CCAs working at Northwood Terrace in Halifax, while the NSGEU represents 596 CCAs working in the organization’s home care program.

In a letter to Northwood’s president and CEO dated June 14, NSGEU president Sandra Mullin said members want to have the issue resolved as soon as possible.

“After many years of wage restraint, working through a pandemic and in the face of rising inflation and increased cost of living the union believes this extended wait for members is unacceptable,” Mullin wrote.

“While I understand there may be issues with a new scheduling and payroll system, it is the unions’ expectation that a solution be found to reduce the wait for our members to be paid what they are owed.”

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Delay due to new payroll system

In an interview Wednesday, Northwood president and CEO Janet Simm said she understands why CCAs are frustrated and apologized for the delay.

While Northwood received funding from the province in early May for the pay raises, it has yet to be paid out due to the implementation of the organization’s new payroll system.

Simm said prior to the “fantastic” announcement about the pay raise in February, Northwood had begun implementing a “major, major payroll system upgrade.”

With more than 2,000 staff in total and multiple collective agreements – along with the impacts of COVID-19 – she said implementing the new system has been a “complex process” that has required the work of several teams.

“We wanted to make sure that as we go live with the system, we had weeks and months of testing to make sure it was accurate,” she said.

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Simm said the new system is now live, but the process impacted the organization’s ability to do one-on-one calculations for the retroactive pay that staff would be eligible for.

“COVID-19 impacts not only our front-line staff and care delivery, but also the administrative functions,” she said. “So it has been a very, very challenging time for all.”

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She said Northwood is working to pay out an advance of the retroactive pay by the end of July, with the rest coming by early October.

The amount of the advance has yet to be determined, she said, as they want to ensure enough of the retroactive pay is maintained so there’s adequate funds for things like benefit costs and income tax deductions.

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In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Seniors and Long-term Care said it is “understandably frustrating” for the staff who are still waiting for the retroactive pay.

“However, moving to a new payroll system in an organization the size of Northwood is a significant undertaking,” it said.

The statement said the province has been working with all facilities since February to get memorandums of understanding signed and the funds for the raises distributed. All have now been signed, and Northwood received nearly $750,000 in May as part of its agreement.

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“We have offered our support and will be checking in frequently over the next few months to make sure Northwood can meet their target date for payment, or even get it done sooner,” it said.

“It is important to remember that all eligible Northwood CCAs have received their raises and will receive a retroactive payment for the money they are owed. When Northwood solves their payroll system challenges, they will be able to ensure staff have receive a retroactive payment that covers what they are owed back to February 10th.”

‘Our members are getting fed up’

Simm said Northwood values their staff and hears their concerns, and thanked them for their patience.

“We deeply apologize for this. The wage increase, we so support it, we believe it’s very, very well deserved,” she said.

“It’s unfortunate that our systems and the challenges that come with COVID-19 have delayed that. We do not want staff to feel that this is in any way reflective of how we value their work, and value them, and we understand completely their frustration in the delays.”

Read more: N.S. long-term care workers rally across the province for better working conditions

However, MacNeil said the CCAs Unifor represents are running out of patience.

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“Our members are getting fed up, and I truly do not blame them,” she said.

MacNeil said while she understands there were issues with the payroll system, getting the workers the money they are owed – or at least some of the money – should be a top priority, especially as Nova Scotians continue to grapple with the increasing cost of living.

“Regardless of the operational issues, changing their payroll system, it’s all understandable – to a point,” MacNeil said.

“This is now July, going towards the end of July, and to not have something in their pockets, something in their bank, it’s just disgraceful, in my opinion.”

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