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Healthcare workers take to the street

Masha Scheele Photo

Members of United Nurses of Alberta Local 84 at the Hinton Healthcare Centre and Hinton Community Health Centre and 43 AUPE from continuing care participated in a Feb. 13 information walk.

Masha Scheele

Local nurses, front-line healthcare workers, and other labour activists showed their support for public healthcare and safe patient care, with a walk Feb. 13.

The local walk was among 33 organized throughout the province amidst collective bargaining proceedings between Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) regarding their Provincial General Agreement.

Local UNA members, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) members, and other supporters participated in the hopes of spreading the message that healthcare workers like nurses are the heart of Alberta’s health care system.

“Just to have proper bedside care, patients have to be turned every two hours, patients have to be fed, if the emergency room is full, if we have urgent surgeries that have to be done, there’s just not enough staff to do it,” said, Stacy Green, a licensed practical nurse (LPN)  and operating room technician (ORT) at the Hinton Healthcare Centre.

This all came after AHS proposed a four-year pay freeze and ‘massive’ rollbacks to the nurses collective agreement said UNA local 84 president, Lara Kostyshyn.

Formal bargaining for UNA’s agreement began Jan. 15, following a wage opener in 2019, she said.

“A lot of language within our collective agreement is being attacked. We’re trying to preserve our current collective agreement and work on negotiating in good bargaining faith,” Kostyshyn said.

Kerry Williamson from AHS communications confirmed that a collective bargaining process with unions is ongoing and wages will be a part of those discussions. 

“An ingoing proposal was tabled with the UNA on Jan. 14, 2020. Our ingoing proposal with UNA reflects our goal to have our collective agreements more closely align with comparable provinces,” Williamson said.

He added that AHS hopes to move forward with bargaining while ensuring they are being fiscally responsible and using public funds as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The UNA website stated its ingoing proposal included two per cent raises in each of two years and some additional improvements to contract language in the agreement.

Kostyshyn explained that they are not interested in the potential rollbacks, and more importantly want to protect the essential jobs of nurses and the safe delivery of patient care.

Due to the planned downsizing by AHS, as many as 750 registered nurses (RNs) and registered psychiatric nurses (RPNs) could be laid off in the next year, she added.

Williamson stated that no decision has been made at this time around potential impacts to nursing staff, and that work with employees and unions will continue. 

“Our focus is always on providing effective, timely patient care and we will pay significant attention to how decisions could impact our people and patient care,” he added.

Steve Buick, press secretary to the Alberta Health Minister, stated that they are holding the line on health spending and finding efficiencies to offset the cost of population growth and other needs.

“Reducing costs does not mean reducing care. Alberta has much higher costs than other provinces where quality is just as good, and wait times are shorter. We can reduce excess costs without reducing care – it’s what we campaigned on, the MacKinnon report and the AHS Review confirmed it,” he stated.

Hinton RN, Casey MacKay, noticed that work is currently more stressful than it’s ever been.  Without being able to call in extra staff on overtime there’s a lot more pressure on the already short staff.

“We are forced to take our breaks now even if it’s compromising patient safety,” she said.

Fellow RN, Carlie Bakker, hopes to see some forward momentum throughout collective bargaining and maintaining hard-earned previous labour standards.

“Changes probably came down about two months ago and you can definitely tell [there’s] staff burnout,” she added. 

“Patient safety has decreased for sure. As you increase patient ratios to nursing staff, and people are getting sicker and living longer etc. you’re not going to get the same kind of care that they had.”

The UNA website stated that most Alberta health care workers including UNA members are facing the possibility of layoffs and major rollbacks of contract provisions. 

Kostyshyn dealt with similar budget cuts in the 1990s and was laid off following a five per cent wage rollback.

“I am familiar with the political environment,” she said. “It is worse [now] because we have the health of Albertans, it seems to be more complex than it was 25 or 30 years ago,” she said.

She added that the current contract between UNA and AHS will end on March 31, but that negotiations are ongoing throughout February.

The information walk took place in front of the Hinton Continuing Care Centre in Hinton along Switzer Drive. 

Feb. 13 also marked the 32nd anniversary of the end of UNA’s province-wide strike in 1988.