Alberta health-care layoffs postponed again amid COVID-19 pandemic

Thousands of potential layoffs affecting nurses and others in Alberta's health-care sector are getting yet another reprieve as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

'Laying off nurses wouldn't be politically viable I don't think right now'

Health-care workers put on protective equipment at a COVID-19 testing facility in Alberta. Unions for such workers and the province have agreed to put contract talks and any layoffs on hold until the fall. (Alberta Health Services)

Thousands of potential layoffs affecting nurses and others in Alberta's health-care sector are getting yet another reprieve as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

In its budget last fall, the United Conservative Party government said it intends to cut the size of the nearly 28,000-member public service by 7.7 per cent by 2023.

There were protests by health-care workers and their supporters amid talk of a general strike starting in late November, when Alberta Health Services (AHS) told the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the United Nurses of Alberta and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta to expect the loss of more than 7,000 jobs by 2023.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) told the UNA it planned to eliminate 500 full-time-equivalent (FTE) nursing positions over a three-year period beginning April 1, 2020 — a move the union said would mean laying off more than 750 front-line registered nurses because many work part-time.

Premier Jason Kenney had suggested job loss numbers could be mitigated if negotiators moderated their salary expectations.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, AHS and the unions agreed to pause contract negotiations and the potential layoffs were put on hold until the end of May.

The new agreement reached this week means bargaining won't resume until September, and job protection provisions will remain in place until then.

"We are extremely grateful to all of our staff who are doing all they can to help us respond to this ongoing pandemic. They are doing incredible work to protect and care for all Albertans," AHS spokesperson James Wood said in a statement.

"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."

Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, says the arrangement was already in the works before the pandemic hit.

"I would hope that they've had a major rethink of the plans they had in terms of laying off nurses and other health-care workers," she said.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta signed similar agreements.

Lorian Hardcastle, who teaches in the faculties of law and medicine at the University of Calgary, says there's anxiety about a possible second wave of infections.

"And that second wave could put pressure on hospitals, and so laying off nurses wouldn't be politically viable, I don't think, right now," she said.

Hardcastle says health-care workers like nurses will be in high demand as the province tries to catch up on its backlog of surgeries.

With files from Jennifer Lee


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