Alberta’s nurses union said the province is making a bad situation worse in health care, by threatening in two recent letters to cut and contract out nursing jobs.
David Harrigan, with the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), said he doubts the province has the wiggle room to cut jobs in a system already straining under the weight of understaffed positions and crushing workloads.
But he added that such threats in the midst of a massive reorganization of Alberta’s health system send the message that those in the industry should brace for job instability.
“We’re not actually concerned that they’re going to be looking at laying off [nurses] because they can’t,” Harrigan, the union’s director of labour relations, said in an interview Tuesday.
“There is a huge shortage [of nurses] and they’re actually closing facilities because there’s such a shortage.”
Earlier Tuesday, the union released two letters sent from its employers — Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Covenant Health — ahead of talks to hash out a new contract when the current four-year deal expires in the spring.
“We will continue to consider all options available to meet our organizational needs through this process, including changes to staff mix and service redesign, contracting out, changes or re-purposing of sites or relocating, reducing or ceasing the provision of services,” wrote Covenant Health in a letter dated Dec. 1.
AHS, in its letter dated the same day, said with the health agency being pared down to an acute care service provider, nursing jobs may fall under new oversight.
“We anticipate there will be some reductions in positions within UNA’s AHS bargaining unit flowing from the movement of functions outside of the organization,” said the letter.
Harrigan called threats to cut and contract out jobs typical “sabre-rattling” ahead of collective bargaining, but said it’s a self-defeating strategy when set against the larger goal of trying to entice health workers to relocate to Alberta.
“What it will do is frighten people and only ensure that very few people will consider Alberta as a place to go and work,” said Harrigan.
“It’s only going to worsen the problems that already exist.”
‘We’re going to grow the front lines’
Speaking to reporters in the legislature Tuesday, Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said the letters don’t mean jobs will be cut — rather, some nurses could be shifted out of AHS into one of the province’s new health-care organizations.
She said the letters were due diligence ahead of bargaining as a good-faith reminder that the system is in flux.
“Front-line job protection is my number one priority,” said LaGrange.
“In fact, I think we’re going to grow the front lines given the fact that we have more people in Alberta and more health needs.”
In a statement to CBC News, LaGrange said her expectation is that most delivery staff will stay in AHS under the new acute care organization.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the United Conservative government has broken its promise of no layoffs or contracting out during the reorganization, and that its sending an alarming message.
“We are in the midst of a nursing crisis, we are competing for nurses across this country,” Notley told reporters.
“The absolute worst way to bring nurses here and keep those important nurses here is to consistently and repeatedly threaten their jobs.”
Last month, Premier Danielle Smith announced AHS will be broken up as part of a top-to-bottom reorganization of health care.
AHS — with 112,000 direct employees and thousands more working in labs, as physicians, and in community care facilities — will be replaced by four new service delivery organizations that will answer directly to LaGrange and cabinet.
The UNA represents more than 35,000 registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses, and other related workers.
The union is set to negotiate a new deal in February.