Alberta government leaving hundreds of millions of dollars for workers unclaimed, labour advocates say

New data obtained by the federal NDP show the Alberta government is a national outlier for leaving federal pandemic funds for frontline workers unclaimed.

Provincial government says new pandemic wage top-ups coming

Travis Toews, Alberta's finance minister, has released little information about a pending deal with the federal government to secure funding to top up the wages of frontline workers during the pandemic. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

New data obtained by the federal NDP show the Alberta government is a national outlier for leaving federal pandemic funds for frontline workers unclaimed.

The information, released by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) on Friday, shows the provincial government has left at least $300 million on the table that could be used to pay top-up wages to health-care workers, correctional officers, first responders and other essential workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without providing specifics, a government spokesperson says some extra money will be going to workers within weeks.

While the stalemate with Alberta stretches into its seventh month, workers in Ontario, B.C., Manitoba and the Maritimes have already received danger pay for showing up to work in person during the spring and summer.

"To know that those workers are not getting the benefit that other workers across the country are getting makes me deeply, deeply disappointed," federal Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MP Heather McPherson said at a Friday news conference.

McPherson said she doesn't know how the federal NDP can keep pushing the Liberal government for pandemic aid programs for the provinces if Alberta won't take advantage of the funding.

"I think it's disgraceful and I'm outraged by this," McPherson said.

Information from the Alberta government has been inconsistent. On Wednesday, Finance Minister Travis Toews told a legislature committee the province had received $47 million in federal funding with no strings attached.

On Thursday, Toews said in the legislature the province was still negotiating with the federal government.

On Friday, Toews' press secretary, Jerrica Goodwin, would not give a precise figure for the money received so far.

"In further negotiations with the federal government, Alberta has secured tens of millions of additional dollars that will be distributed to workers in the coming weeks," she said.

To get more money, the provincial government would have to match a third of the money provided by Ottawa.

Alberta a 'gross outlier,' AFL says

Regardless of the figure, AFL president Gil McGowan said the Alberta government is still leaving hundreds of millions of dollars unclaimed that should go to workers who are putting their safety in jeopardy during the pandemic.

"Alberta is an outlier, a gross outlier, in regards to doing what's necessary to make sure that these low-paid, frontline workers get the so-called hero pay that they've been promised," he said.

In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the top-up program, saying the provinces had agreed to collectively pitch in $1 billion to bolster $3 billion in federal funds.

Each province would decide who would get top ups and how much they would get.

The data obtained by the federal NDP showed six provinces, including Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland had claimed all of the matching federal funds by Sept. 28.

New Brunswick and Saskatchewan had taken just over half of the offered federal funds.

Alberta had claimed just three per cent of the federal money offered, or about $12 million.

McGowan said wage top-ups would make a huge difference to many employees.

"Two dollars an hour extra or even four dollars an hour extra may not sound like much to people earning substantially more, but you have to keep in mind that the workers that we're talking about in this case are notoriously low paid," he said.

The federal finance department did not respond to questions about the issue on Friday.

Delay unacceptable, Opposition says

NDP labour and immigration critic Christina Gray questioned Toews about the program twice this week in the legislature.

She said the seven-month delay is unacceptable.

"Albertans are working through a pandemic now," she said on Friday. "Albertans are struggling to pay their bills now. Albertans are feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated by this UCP government now."

NDP labour and immigration critic Christina Gray says the Alberta government is unfairly leaving Alberta workers in the lurch by refusing to provide matching funds that would secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding to top up workers' pay during the pandemic. (CBC)

Confusing the issue is that, in the spring, the Alberta government agreed to pay $2 per hour extra only to health-care aides working in privately operated care homes.

The government has been sending $7.3 million dollars a month to about 300 private operators. 

This, too, became a political football when unions and some private employers couldn't agree on how the workers should receive that top-up pay. McGowan said Friday that some health-care aides are still not receiving the extra wages.

Although a wider spectrum of workers in other provinces have received the federally subsidized top ups, the Alberta government has refused to say which Alberta workers they think should receive the boost.

Goodwin would not say on Friday whether the provincial government plans to contribute any provincial funding to obtain more of the federal funding.

"We're working with the federal government on additional programs for wage top ups of employees that are working in very challenging environments," the finance minister said in the legislature on Thursday.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.