The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees sounded the alarm Tuesday over a staffing shortage that members say has been an issue in health care for decades and was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The AUPE has 98,000 members working in government, health care, education, boards and agencies, municipalities and private companies. More than 58,000 of them are front-line health-care workers.
“This government would like us to believe that our health-care system has been fixed and there is no crisis,” AUPE vice-president Sandra Azocar said.
The union said the current state of affairs has left the system struggling and unsafe.
“As front-line workers who work in this area every single day — in this short-staffing reality day in and day out — they are here to tell you our members are trying their best to work within an unreasonable and unsafe system that is leaving communities and Albertans without access to appropriate health-care levels and services within their community.”
Dozens of AUPE members wearing or holding signs took part in a rally near the Alberta legislature on Tuesday to raise awareness about the issue.
“We’re exhausted,” said Jesse Philps, who works in an emergency department in central Alberta.
“We need change. We need help.”
Azocar pointed to acute care bed closures in Fairview, High Level, Peace River and High Prairie, saying these bed closures are not about vacation or illness, but chronic understaffing.
“We’re asking Alberta Health Services to look at a fulsome and thorough HR (human resources) strategy that will see some of the issues coming forward — like retainment and recruitment and hiring practices. At Alberta Health Services, they’re very quick to work with contracted agencies instead of using the HR department to bring people in,” Azocar said.
“It would be fair to say thousands of members are missing on a daily basis,” she said.
“We are in a situation where there is a crisis when it comes to short staffing.”
Jules Noel works in the food services sector of Alberta’s health-care system.
“You just worked a shift and you’re exhausted and you come home and you turn on the radio and you hear them say it’s fixed,” Noel said. “To hear our leader tell us it’s fixed is a bold-faced lie and everyone knows it.
“To hear this ad that’s paid by our dollars over and over and over is very frustrating to us.”
Bree Barr said she has worked for 15 years as a licensed practical nurse for AHS.
“I was excited to move to this province to work in this area,” Barr said. “However, over the years I’ve seen the straw slowly come apart — the pandemic was the last straw.
“It’s not just that we don’t have enough staff — it’s that we too many patients even within the hospital systems that have been there far too long, because there’s nowhere to go in private care or home care because there’s no staff there.
“There isn’t just one problem.”
Alberta’s UCP government allocated $158 million in February’s budget to attract more physicians and other health-care professionals to fill gaps in care.
Health Minister Jason Copping said more than half of the $158 million will be used for programs to recruit physicians to rural areas, which are feeling the brunt of the doctor shortage.
Some funds are to help underserviced and remote communities, and some money will be used to bring in internationally-trained nurses from the United States and United Kingdom.
The health ministry said the province also has a new collective bargaining agreements with the United Nurses of Alberta for the more than 30,000 registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses in the health system.
“AUPE and AHS also ratified a new collective agreement for licensed practical nurses and health care aides working in acute and continuing care. These agreements will help to recruit and retain rural nurses,” said health press secretary Scott Johnston.
The province said last year, 800 RNs, LPNs and health-care aides were hired across Alberta, along with 500 paramedics.
“The hiring has continued in 2023 with 300 more nursing staff working for AHS,” Johnston said.
Philps, who works in the ER in AHS Central Zone, said more hiring should be happening.
“There are multitudes of students coming out of the Alberta school systems — nursing students, LPNs HCAs — they’re not getting hired. They’re applying and applying and applying and they’re being ignored. They’re not getting emails back, they’re not getting interviews.
“Front-line workers care about the people of Alberta and are doing the best with what we are given to the detriment of our mental health and our physical health and we are exhausted,” Philps said.
“The crisis is not over.”
With a provincial election in May, both the governing UCP and the Opposition NDP are proposing plans to recruit more physicians and other health specialists.
“We’re working hard as well to encourage nursing students to study both at the major universities, but also in smaller communities,” Johnston said.
The province has launched an undergraduate nursing program in Wainwright where courses are offered online, with labs and clinical practice delivered in-person. Johnston said the first cohort of eight students started in September 2021 and upon successful completion of their studies, will be awarded a Bachelor of Nursing degree from the University of Calgary.
The NDP has said that if elected it would plan to create health teams involving specialists, such as physiotherapists and licensed practical nurses working with physicians, thereby allowing the doctors to take on more patients.
David Shepherd, Alberta NDP health critic, said the province has seen four years of budget cuts under the UCP and a lack of support for front-line health-care workers from Danielle Smith.
“Now, as we have been dealing with the worst affordability crisis in over 40 years, the UCP continues to be hostile to frontline health-care workers,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
“Danielle Smith and the UCP have ignored requests from paramedics to get off shift on time and be offered full-time work, and have gone to war with frontline healthcare workers by tearing up doctors contracts and threatening layoffs and wage cuts.
“The Alberta NDP are committed to properly funding public health care and treating frontline health-care workers with respect.”
Barr said that she believes the government is “not talking to anybody who’s actually doing the work, who’s actually in the physical position of implementing the ideas they want to implement.”
Barr said she was concerned about Albertans in overcrowded hospital rooms or waiting long hours in emergency departments.
“It’s not safe for staff and it’s not safe for patients.”
— with files from Karen Bartko, Global News