AHS had ‘preliminary discussions’ about potentially hiring contract nurses to address staff shortages

EDMONTON — The union representing Alberta nurses says it is “alarmed” that Alberta Health Services (AHS) is considering hiring contract nurses to cover staffing gaps, while AHS says it has not contractually agreed to the measure.

David Harrigan, United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) labour relations director, said in a statement that the union learned that AHS was planning to address staffing shortages by hiring contract nurses from Toronto-based Greenstaff Medical Canada to provide direct nursing care at AHS facilities across Alberta.

“AHS did not disclose anything about this plan in negotiations with UNA, as required by law, despite the fact UNA and AHS have been discussing recruiting strategies with UNA as recently as Tuesday (Aug. 10),” Harrigan said.

Harrigan said the Greenstaff Medical offered to pay nurses it employs to work at AHS facilities $55 an hour for general acute care and up to $75 an hour for ICU and emergency department shifts, as well as weekend premiums, a housing allowance, and shift differentials. Union member nurses working for AHS are currently paid between $36.86 and $48.37 per hour.

“It’s outrageous that AHS, acting on the instructions of the Alberta government, is proposing to reduce the compensation of nurses that it already employs, and threatening to lay off hundreds more, while paying more to nurses hired by the Canadian arm of a multinational recruitment agency based in Texas.”

Kerry Williamson, AHS spokesperson, said in a statement to CTV News Edmonton that the UNA comments are an “incorrect characterization of the discussions” the health provider is having with Greenstaff Medical to date.

“Our goal is to always cover shifts by using existing bargaining unit members, and to fill our vacancies in areas hard to recruit by hiring qualified candidates rather than relying on agency nurses,” Williamson said.

“While staffing agencies provide support in remote and rural locations at times, it is only as a last resort to prevent disruption of services due to vacancies or needs resulting from illness or vacation time.”

According to Williamson, Greenstaff Medical approached AHS and that only “preliminary discussions” have occurred but no contract has been signed.

“AHS will be asking UNA to correct their statement to properly reflect the information that was shared with them in collective bargaining,” he said.

The UNA says it is continuing to negotiate essential service levels, a necessary step prior to any job action, and will review current negotiations and options for moving forward as bargaining with AHS has seen “little progress” over recent weeks.

“Contracting out nursing – at a higher rate of pay – is just the latest in a long string of bad faith bargaining actions in this round of bargaining,” Harrigan said. “It may well be the final straw for many members.”

The UNA and AHS have been engaged in collective agreement negotiations after the province postponed negotiations twice due to the pandemic.

Travis Toews, minister of treasury board and finance, said in a statement he is thankful for the work nurses put in during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I urge both parties to continue to work together in good faith as they explore settlement options that respect the work of Alberta’s nurses and the financial pressures our province is facing,” Toews said.

Toews added that he is “pleased” AHS is making an application to mediation services for informal mediation to begin.

“Instead of letting negotiations stall, AHS is actively working towards a new collective agreement that meets the needs of all Albertans, and will bring long-term labour stability to the health care system.”

Seven of the last eight collective agreements between AHS and the UNA were reached in mediation.

“We remain confident that this round of informal mediation will be just as productive,” Toews said.

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