Federal top-up pay for Alberta essential workers remains in limbo

Nearly four months after the federal government pledged billions of extra dollars for low-paid essential workers, Alberta employees have yet to see a cent of it.

While most other provinces have launched programs to reward workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic with bonus payments, the Alberta and federal governments can’t agree on how the money should be spent in the province.

Adrienne South, press secretary for Alberta Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping, said the provincial government on Friday submitted its second formal proposal for the top-up payment program. The federal government had previously rejected another proposal, she said.

Meanwhile, the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba and the Maritime provinces have all accessed some of the $3 billion in federal funding to launch programs giving extra pay to health-care workers, emergency responders, correctional officers, social workers and other crucial employees. The provinces and territories agreed to pitch in another $1 billion for the program.

On May 7, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the provinces and territories had reached a deal with the federal government to compensate essential workers for the risks they took by reporting to work this spring and summer.

“One of the things that we’re seeing through this pandemic is that there are people who are tremendously economically vulnerable and vulnerable in other ways in our society who are extremely important to the functioning of our society,” Trudeau said during the May announcement.

He left it up to provinces and territories to propose which workers should be paid extra, and how much.

The money began flowing to provinces on June 19, and as of Aug. 6, the federal government had disbursed $2.4 billion across the country.

A federal finance department spokesperson said the Alberta government has received some of that money, but won’t say how much.

“Under the Essential Worker initiative, federal funding is determined by the amount requested by the province, up to a maximum allocation. For details on the implementation of Alberta’s program, please contact Alberta directly,” Anna Arneson said in an email.

The Alberta government also refused to reveal how much it has received or how much the province intends to contribute.

Ontario and B.C. essential workers receive extra $4 an hour

Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba have published comprehensive lists of eligible workers, set date ranges for the top-up pay and established targets for getting the money to people who have put their safety at risk during the pandemic.

Ontario used the federal funding to pay for about three-quarters of the cost of a $4-an-hour wage top-up for health, social services and corrections workers. More than 375,000 Ontario workers will receive money retroactively for work performed between April and August. Workers who put in more than 100 hours a month during that time will also get a $250 cash bonus. The program is worth $1.5 billion.

In B.C., more than 250,000 front-line workers who were on the job between March and July will get a retroactive payment this fall. People who worked in hospitals, jails, emergency shelters and for social services agencies will get a $4 hourly top-up payment for their hours worked.

More than 78,000 Manitoba front-line workers will receive a $1,377 lump sum payment for working in essential services jobs between March and May.

But since the federal announcement, Alberta’s labour ministry hasn’t answered questions about how much federal money it has received, which workers government thinks should receive top-up wages or how much pay those workers can expect. CBC News has asked for details on 10 occasions since May.

South wouldn’t say what the Alberta government has proposed, except to say that multiple provincial ministries are involved.

Unions in the dark about top-up pay

Union leaders representing many of the essential workers say they’re frustrated by the delay and absence of information about where the money has gone.

“It’s shocking and it shows a level of cynicism that I think is breathtaking that we haven’t seen before,” said Rory Gill, president of the Alberta division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

CUPE represents support, maintenance, custodial and food service workers in Alberta health facilities and schools along with front-line municipal workers and flight attendants.

Complicating the issue is a $2-an-hour wage top-up the Alberta government announced last April only for health-care aides working at private continuing care homes. The government, unions and private care home operators clashed over how and when to get those extra payments to workers. The health minister said that top-up will continue until the pandemic is over. It’s unclear if the Alberta government wishes to use federal funding to offset the cost of the top-up pay provided to health-care aides.

On Monday, Gill said CUPE members are having trouble figuring out when top-up payments started or ended or where the money is coming from.

“They’ve tried to keep this as quiet, as opaque, and stop people from understanding where they’re getting the money from and how it’s being handed out,” Gill said.

AUPE president Guy Smith says his union has no information about whether any federal funding is flowing to essential workers. Health-care workers feel frustrated that health-care aides receive a $2-per-hour provincial wage top up while custodians, food services workers and LPNs are left out of the extra pay. (Sam Martin/CBC )

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees is also wrestling to get information about the fate of federal wage top-ups, president Guy Smith said on Monday.

Health-care workers see the wage top-ups announced in B.C. and Ontario and ask why they don’t merit the same rewards, Smith said.

The union has also pushed the Alberta government to extend the provincial wage boost for health-care aides to all long-term care home employees.

“It’s created a lot of anger among their fellow workers in those sites,” Smith said. “You know, the LPNs, and there’s maintenance staff, the cleaning staff, food service staff, who are working harder than they ever have because their jobs have increased as well, with COVID, but they’re not being recognized either.”

South says Alberta labour and immigration hopes for a response from the federal government soon and to be able to reveal more details within weeks.

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