Nurses plan day of action at hospitals across Alberta to amplify staffing, salary concerns

Alberta nurses plan to take part in information pickets across the province on Wednesday afternoon in an effort to amplify their concerns that understaffing, closed hospital beds and salary rollbacks will impact patient care.

The day of action comes as the province attempts to balance its finances with cuts to nurses’ salaries amidst the turmoil of COVID-19.

“One minute we’re being praised as heroes, we’re being told we’re at the forefront of keeping public health-care together,” Kevin Champagne, the local president with the United Nurses of Alberta, told CBC News.

“And then, as the pandemic has progressed over the last 16 months, we’re hearing that we’re a drain on resources.”

The United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), which represents about 30,000 health-care workers across the province, is encouraging its members, their coworkers and the public to attend during breaks and time off.

In a written statement, the union said Alberta’s nurses are exhausted, overworked and in need of fairness in the workplace.

Dr. Joe Vipond, who has been critical of the Alberta government’s COVID-19 plan, gives a speech to supporters gathered in front of the Foothills hospital as he voices his support for nurses. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

“Beds are closing because hospitals are short of nurses. This is a result of the pressure on the system caused by pandemic and a long history of understaffing nursing positions,” the UNA said.

“The rollbacks proposed by the government are an insult to nurses and won’t help Alberta recruit and keep health-care workers, which is what is needed most to keep hospital beds open.”

The information pickets are expected to take place at more than 25 works sites across Alberta.

They will be held in municipalities that include Brooks, Calgary, Camrose, Drayton Valley, Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Jasper, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Stony Plain, Ponoka, Westlock and Whitecourt.

Ongoing labour negotiations

The province and the UNA started collective bargaining in January 2020.

In July, Alberta Health Services asked for a three per cent pay cut as part of ongoing labour negotiations.

The UNA said that in addition to previous rollback asks, the pay cut would reduce compensation by five per cent.

Protesters held colourful signs, waving and cheering while vehicles drove by. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Nurses told CBC News last month that after experiencing the pandemic at its worst, the rollback amounted to a “huge slap in the face.”

Some said they were seeking employment outside of Alberta.

“I’ve never seen morale this low,” said emergency room registered nurse Jessica McGrath. “We don’t have the same spirit that we used to.”

‘We are facing a $93-billion debt’

In response to the day of action, Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews said the provincial government is “truly appreciative” of the hard work and dedication that health-care professionals have shown during the pandemic.

The United Conservative Party respects the rights of all Albertans to express opinions on matters important to them, he said Wednesday in a statement, adding that the government is committed to standing up for the health-care system.

‘As bargaining continues, my hope is that unions and their employers can quickly come to a settlement that works for everyone, and is aligned with the fiscal realities we are facing,’ Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a statement. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“That’s why we have been urging both Alberta Health Services (AHS) and UNA to work towards a new collective agreement that will bring long-term labour stability to the health care system,” Toews said.

“Last week, AHS proposed informal mediation to UNA, in an attempt to move towards a settlement agreement. Unfortunately, union leadership declined the offer … we are hopeful that informal mediation would allow the two parties to work collaboratively towards a deal.”

However, Toews emphasized that Alberta’s debt is a “fiscal reality” that requires “a settlement that works for everyone.”

“The reality is that Alberta spends more money per person on health care than other large provinces, and this can’t continue,” he said.

“We are facing a $93-billion debt, and we spend more than half of the province’s operating budget on public sector compensation. We must continue to find efficiencies across the public sector — it’s an essential piece to restoring fiscal health and ensuring sustainable public services.”

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