Health minister won't intervene over layoffs at Vegreville care home

Health Minister Tyler Shandro says workers who have been fired from their jobs at a privately owned seniors facility in Vegreville can apply for other Alberta Health Services jobs in the area. 

53 workers have been fired and told to reapply for their jobs at a lower hourly rate

Health Minister Tyler Shandro says he won't intervene in the transition of some services to Pro Vita Care Management at the Century Park seniors home in Vegreville. (Nathan Gross/CBC )

Health Minister Tyler Shandro says workers who have been fired from their jobs at a privately owned seniors facility in Vegreville can apply for other Alberta Health Services jobs in the area. 

More than 50 workers at the Century Park care home in the town east of Edmonton have been let go by Vancouver-based owner Optima Living, after the company contracted nursing care and kitchen operations to Pro-Vita Care Management. 

The workers can reapply for their jobs but will be paid lower wages. 

Shandro said he wants to ensure residents keep getting the care they require during the transition. He said he won't intervene in the situation and would not address the issue of lower wages.

"For folks who have the ability to be employed by the new provider, there will be those opportunities. AHS also has a number of vacancies in Vegreville and area," Shandro told reporters. 

"My understanding is most of those employees will be able to find employment." 

Under the current collective agreement with Optima Living, the lowest salary is about $19.50 an hour for health-care aides, $26 an hour for licensed practical nurses and $22 an hour for cooks.

Workers at a news conference organized by the NDP caucus said they expect an average wage of $17 an hour if they are rehired. Their last day on the job is Oct. 31.

"It's not fair," said Suzanne Malo, a health-care aid. "Profits before people, and corporations and shareholders first. It's not right."

"We love our jobs. We love what we do. That's why we do it."

Shandro's remarks came after the NDP held a news conference at the Alberta legislature with some of the 53 laid-off workers. 

Laid-off health care aid Suzanne Malo spoke to the media at the Alberta legislature on Thursday about the situation at Century Park seniors home. (Nathan Gross/CBC )

David Shepherd, the NDP health critic, pointed out that Optima had said in a letter to employees that the layoffs would help the company offer "the prospect of a greater return to our shareholders." 

"This decision wasn't about Optima providing the best care," Shepherd said. "It was about them keeping the most cash." 

Malo said she would like an apology from Optima for the shareholder remark, which she called "an insult." 

Shepherd said changes in private contractors must be approved by Alberta Health Services. He said Shandro has the authority as health minister to direct AHS to intervene.

Malo said most people who work at Century Park live in Vegreville. The layoffs come on the heels of the closure of the federal immigration and refugee case processing centre (CPC), which was relocated to Edmonton last year, taking more than 200 jobs out of the community.

"Rural communities are suffering as it is," said health-care aid Rod Kusiek. "Vegreville is striving to rebuild with the big loss after the CPC closure, and this is just another hit to the community." 

NDP MLA and labour critic Christina Gray said AUPE is planning to make an application to the Labour Relations Board on behalf of the workers.

On Wednesday, Leela Aheer, the minister responsible for the status of women, suggested the laid-off workers, who are mostly female, could get training in the trades. 

"Did you know that we have 20,000 folks that are going to be retiring in the next little while," Aheer told the legislature. "What a massive opportunity for women to really break into this field and be at the table."

Workers seemed dumbfounded when told about Aheer's suggestion. One worker said her job is close to her children's school, giving her the chance to pick them up when class is done. 

"These seniors need care," Gray said. "If all workers go and retrain in oil and gas, society will break down."