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Alberta backs off demand for nurse pay cuts in latest round of collective bargaining

Province had been demanding a three per cent rollback for the 30,000-plus members of UNA
Alberta Minister of Finance and President of the Treasury Board Travis Toews delivers the 2021 budget in Edmonton on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

The Alberta government has backed down from demanding salary cuts from nurses.

But the nurses’ union said the province still wants concessions, including an end to lump-sum payments, which amount to a two per cent reduction in their take-home pay.

Finance Minister Travis Toews said they have changed their bargaining position with the United Nurses of Alberta, or UNA.

He said they are now offering a five-year deal to reflect appreciation for nurses while still recognizing the government’s financial challenges.

“The revised proposal from (Alberta Health Services) is a long-term contract for nurses, with a wage freeze for the first three years and a modest wage increase in the fourth and fifth years,” Toews said in a statement Wednesday.

“This new proposal acknowledges the hard work and dedication of Alberta’s nurses while respecting the tough fiscal situation the province is in.”

The union said the offer is a one per cent pay hike in each of the last two years.

For months, Toews has been demanding a three per cent rollback for the 30,000-plus members of UNA.

Toews has said nurses are overpaid compared with other jurisdictions, making about 5.6 per cent more by comparison, and that these wages can’t be sustained in a province trying to bring its budget back in balance.

“Alberta can no longer afford to be an outlier,” Toews said in a statement on July 6.

Alberta has been running multibillion-dollar budget deficits for years as it deals with price troughs in the oil sector compounded by money to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was looking down the barrel of an $18-billion deficit this year, a forecast now cut to about $8 billion of red ink due to a rebound in global oil prices.

Since July, COVID-19 has slammed into Alberta with a vengeance in the fourth wave.

New daily case numbers regularly top 1,000 — the highest in Canada — and the province has been scrambling to create surge beds as intensive care units come dangerously close to capacity.

The crisis has led to patient transfers and provincewide delays in non-emergency surgeries. The government is now recruiting contract nurses to fill staffing gaps. On top of that, talks with the UNA move to mediation starting Friday.

Failure in mediation could lead to a strike vote by nurses.

The UNA, in a statement, said the end of the “offensive rollback” is appreciated but the battle is far from over.

“The AHS proposal maintains the demand for elimination of lump-sum payments, which would cost UNA members two per cent a year in pay,” said the union.

The UNA has also balked at proposed changes to scheduling rules.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the government’s retreat was the result of finally realizing that trying to cut nurses’ salaries during a health and staffing crisis “was beyond idiotic.”

“All of this is just more evidence that this government doesn’t know what they’re doing,” Notley added. “We’re actually now at a point of pure incompetence.”

The last four-year collective agreement with Alberta Health Services and the UNA expired in the spring of 2020.

The two sides mutually agreed twice to suspend contract talks to focus on the pandemic, but last March the UNA served notice it was time to resume bargaining.

That prompted Toews to suggest the nurses were putting their own needs ahead of patient care during the pandemic.

David Harrigan, the UNA’s director of labour negotiations, fired back, accusing Toews of “grossly insulting” hypocrisy from a government that continued collective talks with physicians and other public sector unions, but had no time for nurses.

—Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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