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Proposed wage rollbacks 'felt like a punch in the gut,' says local nurses' rep

“After everything nurses have been through in this pandemic on the front lines, to have (it) escalate to minus three, honestly, I don't think anybody was really expecting that. It just feels so disrespectful, so disheartening,” said Orissa Shima, the nurses’ union representative for the Sturgeon Community Hospital.
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Nurses at the Sturgeon Community Hospital have flooded the local union rep's inbox with emails. FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albert - Nurses at the Sturgeon Community Hospital are shocked at proposed wage rollbacks by the province and Alberta Health Services.

“It felt like a punch in the gut on Tuesday, when we got back to the table after such a long time of not being at the bargaining table. And the news that they came back and escalated their proposals from a zero to a minus three. On top of the plethora of other rollbacks … it really, honestly knocked the wind out of me,” said Orissa Shima, the nurses’ union representative for the Sturgeon.

On July 6, after a 16-month hiatus, the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) and AHS resumed contract negotiations. The proposed negotiations include a three-per-cent wage rollback in exchange for job security among other contract rollbacks to compensation and working conditions.

Shima said her inbox has been flooded by feedback from her members.

“So many of (the emails) are just saying, ‘It's a slap in the face. This is horrific. How do these people sleep at night? How can they expect us to take a walk back, after all we've been through?’” she said.

The Sturgeon is a busy hospital and Shima said it has been tough working on the front lines; they’ve had a very active COVID unit at the hospital. The three-per-cent rollback was completely unexpected by her members.

“After everything nurses have been through in this pandemic on the front lines, to have (it) escalate to minus three, honestly, I don't think anybody was really expecting that. It just feels so disrespectful, so disheartening,” she said.

Karen Kuprys, former St. Albert resident and secretary-treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour, worked in long-term care throughout the pandemic until she was elected to the federation in May.

“I think that broke something inside me as a nurse, and it was really difficult, and it was just unbelievable the amount of work. Anybody who isn't taking care of COVID-positive patients doesn't understand what that's like,” she said.

Kyprus thinks the proposals by the province and AHS are insulting after all that nurses have been through with the pandemic. She fears the negotiations will bring the system back to a time of severe shortages and that this is a deliberate effort by the government to undermine the public-health system.

“So they can sell the notion that private care is what's going to save us,” she said.

Kyprus has been a nurse since 1993 and experienced the cutbacks during the Ralph Klein era.

Nurses during that time agreed to a five-per-cent cutback and were reassured they would be spared from layoffs. They weren’t.

“I mean, thousands of my colleagues were laid off … It caused a lot of problems to lay off that many nurses,” she said.

A lot of people in her generation left the country, creating a hole in the system that took a long time to fill up again. She is afraid that is going to happen again.

“There are shortages all across the province right now … We have units, and we have facilities that are closing beds … it increases the wait times, it increases the stress on patients and families, and staff. It increases the amount of mandatory overtime that people need to work, which is not fiscally responsible,” she said.

Kuprys said all the proposals offend her, but some of what they are asking to roll back nurses have worked hard to achieve, such as designated days of rest.

“Like everybody else, we would like to have a guarantee of two days off a week that we could be guaranteed that we're not called in for work and if we are, we'd like to be compensated for that,’ she said.

AHS directed a request for an interview to the office of Finance Minister Travis Toews. His office sent a July 6 press release in response to the request for an interview.

In the press release, Toews said the province respects and appreciates the invaluable role nurses have played in helping the province emerge from the pandemic.

“AHS is offering job security to nurses, despite record unemployment in the province due to the pandemic,” he stated.

Toews said Alberta nurses make 5.6 per cent more than in comparative provinces and cost Alberta around $141 million per year.

“The need to bring wages in line with other large provinces does not diminish our deep respect for the exceptional work and dedication of public-sector workers. It is simply reflective of our fiscal reality, and one that many sectors in the province have experienced,” he explained.

Toews also said the government spent $1.5 billion in health-care spending in response to the pandemic, and that was above and beyond the $23-billion health expense in the 2021 budget, which was the largest single-year investment in health care in Alberta’s history.

Shima said in her 21 years of being a nurse and the 10 years she has been a local president, she has never experienced labour unrest. Her members are angry.

“I've got members emailing me and saying, ‘When’s the strike vote?’ ... It's not going to end anywhere good … I don't think anyone is going is to be OK with this proposal,” she said.

Negotiations were set to resume on July 13 and 14.

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