N.B. Nurses Union counted strike vote ballots on Thursday. The province's 5,500 nurses are set to go on strike as early as Dec. 19. ((CBC))

New Brunswick's 5,500 nurses have voted overwhelmingly to go on strike, setting up a possible labour confrontation with the Liberal government by Dec. 19.

The New Brunswick Nurses Union released the 94 per cent strike mandate on Thursday, opening the door to the province’s first-ever nurses' strike.

Marilyn Quinn, president of the nurses union, said the provincial government could avert the holiday period work stoppage by giving nurses a slight pay raise and dealing with the unbearable working conditions they are under.

"[Human Resources] Minister [Rick] Brewer has said nurses should reconsider. There was nothing to reconsider. We're willing to go back to the table. We'll await their phone call. If not, in seven days, we'll be prepared to go to the picket line," Quinn said.

Seventy per cent of the province's 5,500 nurses are designated essential so they would not be permitted to participate in any job action. But Quinn said given that 30 per cent won't be there and that there no overtime will be worked during any strike, there will be a major impact on health care in New Brunswick.

Leading up to the strike vote, the Department of Health began developing contingency plans to limit the number of service interruptions in the hospital system should a strike occur. Health Minister Michael Murphy has already stated that elective surgeries and non-urgent diagnostics will be cancelled. The remaining essential nurses would focus on patients in critical condition.

That means people like cardiac patients, those in the emergency room, small babies in the neonatal unit or seniors in need of hospital care would get first priority.

In the last round of negotiations, the Office of Human Resources offered a raise of 11.5 per cent over three years.

Brewer said the province is still willing to move on other parts of the contract.

Specifically, the province is willing to make changes to its 11.5 per cent wage package to include premiums for evening, night and weekend shifts.