Alberta walks back nurses' pay cut proposal as 4th COVID-19 wave grows

Alberta's nurses union says the government is backing down on a three-per cent wage rollback amid rising COVID-19 cases and staff shortages.

Alberta Health Services has again set a new labour proposal before the province's nurses.

According to the provincial union, AHS was told by the government to revise its bargaining proposals before formal mediation began. The new labour proposal excludes both the salary cut and reductions in pay premiums AHS attempted to negotiate for months.

United Nurses of Alberta called the changes progress, but noted the proposal would still eliminate lump-sum payments, effectively costing UNA members two per cent a year in pay. It also threatens scheduling protections for nurses and proposes a three-year wage freeze, the union said.

"It’s sort of equivalent to saying, ‘I will no longer throw rocks at you, I’ll only throw small pebbles at you,’” said David Harrigan with UNA.

“We understand we can’t have the moon and the stars, and that there’s a financial problem. But you don’t take the financial problem out on the very people that are helping you get through this pandemic.” 

Finance and Treasury Board Minister Travis Toews said the proposal "acknowledges the hard work and dedication of Alberta’s nurses, while respecting the tough fiscal situation the province is in."

The UNA also suggested AHS efforts to recruit out-of-province contract nurses are evidence of a chronic problem. Days earlier, the union was told AHS would begin hiring contract nurses from agencies based in Ontario and B.C.  

"Continuing … in a period when the system is under stress and health care workers are suffering from burnout and exhaustion will not help AHS solve its staffing problems and would likely make the current situation worse, considering the growing national and international nursing shortage."

Toews delivered at the end of August a more favourable provincial budget than had been expected: Alberta's $7.8-billion deficit was less than half the projected, and revenue $11 billion higher. That would not change the province's plan to bring spending in line with other provinces, Toews said at the time.

And in a statement Wednesday, he called Alberta nurses' lump-sum payments unique in Canada.

AHS and UNA return to the bargaining table Sept. 21.

Alberta's Opposition leader, the NDP's Rachel Notley, challenged the idea the changes would be enough to combat burnout and low morale, or restore trust in the United Conservative government.