Workload, staffing top priorities for nurses in contract talks

Debbie Forward says her union is fighting to increase staff and reduce workload for nurses, but is less vocal when it comes potential wages freezes and severance buyouts.

Union president won't say if members open to wage freeze, severance buyout

Debbie Forward is president of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland & Labrador. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The president of the union that represents registered nurses in Newfoundland and Labrador says she'll fight hard at the bargaining table when it comes to workload concerns and staffing levels.

But Debbie Forward is less vocal when it comes to potential wage freezes and severance buyouts.

The nurses' union, RNUNL, will resume contract talks with the provincial government later this month, and Forward is leaving no doubt about what her priorities will be.The health system needs more full-time RNs, she said, to address severe workload issues and a staffing shortage.

She says such an approach will save money in the long term and result in better health-care outcomes.

"You save the system by preventing complications for patients. You save the system by making sure patients are discharged in a timely manner. You save the system because you're not cancelling surgeries because there are no RNs," Forward said in an interview with CBC News.

The Registered Nurses' Union of N.L. says hundreds of surgeries have been cancelled because there aren't enough nurses. (File Photo)

There are roughly 6,000 RNs in the province. In 2016-17 they were paid $461 million in salaries, plus roughly $14 million in overtime.

Sick leave for those nurses also cost the province about $33 million, according to figures released by the union.

350 surgeries cancelled

Despite this investment, Forward said 350 surgeries were cancelled over the past two years because of a nursing shortage.

She said 24-hour shifts are still occurring, and the shortage is making it difficult for nurses to take leave days.

The number one issue for my members is safe staffing and safe workloads.- Debbie Forward

Forward said the number of RNs has remained largely unchanged since 2011, but the pool of casual nurses has grown significantly.

"That disturbs me," she said.

So does her tone mean the union will accept a wage freeze and a severance payout — key elements in a tentative deal with the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees? 

"I don't think I said that. I said we're going to leave those discussions at the bargaining table. What I said was the No. 1 issue for my members is safe staffing and safe workloads," Forward said.

If NAPE's 20,000 members accept the government's offer, their wages will remain the same until 2020, but no one will be laid off and civil servants with more than a year of service will get a severance buyout — at a cost of $250 million.

If a similar offer is being made to the nurses, Forward is not saying.

But she did acknowledge government has not threatened the union with layoffs, despite public comments by a senior health bureaucrat recently that the province has too many doctors and nurses.

"I'm hopeful that I'm not going to see the sentiment of (deputy health minister John Abbott) spill over into our bargaining session because if it does then things aren't going to go as well as I'm optimistically hoping that they will," Forward said.

Finance Minister Tom Osborne has said the public service should be reduced through attrition, not layoffs. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The contract talks are occurring in an atmosphere of economic doom and gloom, with Finance Minister Tom Osborne projecting a deficit of more than $850 million this year and repeated assertions that public spending is unsustainable in a province that has one of the country's largest public-sector workforces.

As of last year, there were some 45,000 public servants, with some 37,000 of those employed by agencies such as health authorities, boards and commissions.

Osborne has directed the agencies, boards and commissions to cut spending.