Cuts to Alberta nurses, public-sector jobs paused amidst COVID-19 outbreak

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), United Nurses of Alberta and Alberta Health Services have agreed to suspend contract negotiations and looming layoffs amidst the outbreak of COVID-19.

Bargaining will be suspended, job protections extended until May 31

Nurses and public-sector jobs will not be cut at the end of March, as initially planned, as Alberta continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. (David Bajer/CBC)

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) and Alberta Health Services (AHS) have agreed to suspend contract negotiations and looming layoffs amidst the outbreak of COVID-19.

The previous cuts — which could affect nearly 6,000 public-sector jobs, including those in the health-care system, along with 750 front-line nurses — were subject to job protection only until the end of March.

"We were anticipating that many of those layoffs would come from the very folks that are on those front-lines, keeping hospitals and health-care facilities clean and safe," said AUPE president Guy Smith. "Those folks are just as important now during this crisis as they've ever been to the health-care system."

Negotiating teams for AUPE and UNA will seek another suspension should COVID-19 continue to pose a threat after May 31.

The province previously proposed that the next collective agreement include a one per cent wage rollback for the 24,000 AUPE members, who work in general government services. 

"We were anticipating some major cuts," Smith said. "I know that Albertans and politicians always talk of doctors and nurses, but without the hard work of the support staff, those doctors and nurses cannot do their jobs."

But cuts to nursing positions are likely to still be in the works after the COVID-19 outbreak is under control, according to David Harrigan with the United Nurses of Alberta.

"We had provided them a proposal that we believe addressed all their concerns," Harrigan said in an email to CBC News. "They rejected it and would not amend any of their proposals.

"They still plan to lay off hundreds of nurses, as far as we know — they tell us that this is still the plan — but they have not determined which locations."

In a statement provided to CBC News, AHS said pausing bargaining was in the best interest of Albertans.

"We are extremely grateful to all of our staff who are doing all they can to help us respond to this ongoing crisis. They are doing incredible work to protect and care for all Albertans," the statement reads. "We look forward to working in partnership with our unions as we continue to respond to the COVID-19 situation, and when we return to the bargaining table."

On Tuesday, the Alberta government also cancelled controversial changes to the way doctors bill the province, which would have removed their ability to bill for longer assessments.