Calgary

500 unvaccinated AHS staff back to work after opting into testing program

Hundreds of unvaccinated Alberta Health Services staff and physicians are making their way back into hospitals and healthcare settings after opting into the province's temporary frequent COVID-19 testing program announced earlier this month.

AUPE files hundreds of grievances over testing policy

The AUPE says the cost of participating in the province's temporary frequent testing program is keeping hundreds of unvaccinated healthcare staff from returning to work. (Matthias Schrader/The Associated Press)

Alberta Health Services says 500 of 1,400 unvaccinated staff and physicians are making their way back into hospitals and healthcare settings after opting into the province's temporary frequent COVID-19 testing program. 

The province said it made the change earlier this month to ensure it could meet the increased demand on the healthcare system brought on by a surge in Omicron variant cases. 

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) represents many impacted staff including LPNs, food services and maintenance staff, and says while many employees were happy to go back to work, the cost of participating in the testing program remains a barrier for hundreds more.

"The other barrier is the availability of the tests themselves, which is really, again, a huge part of why our members are choosing to stay off," said AUPE vice-president Bonnie Gostola. "They don't want to be off, but they don't have choice because they can't afford it or they can't find the tests."

AHS says it will continue to welcome unvaccinated staff back who choose to opt into testing.

The AUPE said it has filed hundreds of grievances against AHS and other healthcare employers — including owners of congregate setting providers — on behalf of its staff who feel the vaccination and testing policies were unfairly applied.

"It has to be realistic. It has to be universal. But now they've kind of did a flip flop and so it applies to some, but not to others," she said. 

"Those that weren't vaccinated, that have chosen to go back to work are doing it at their own expense — which we have filed policy grievances against — because we believe our employers here should be paying that cost. It's not fair. And that's what we're advocating for is if you're going to put a policy in place that it has to be fair across the board."

She said many of these employees are seeking monetary compensation for being put on leaves of absence without pay for not complying with the policies. Gostola expects it will take months, if not years, to have all of these grievances settled. 

"We're still dealing with pieces like this that are two, three, four years old," she said. "It is not an easy process. It is a lengthy one."

AHS said vacancy filling and recruitment to help address staffing challenges across the healthcare system is always a priority and takes place all year.

It said there was an overwhelmingly positive response to its immunization policy, with more than 97 per cent of AHS employees and 99.8 per cent of physicians having at least two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to safety on Calgary Transit. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

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