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Alberta long-term care workers to have some say in pandemic placements

Workers employed at more than one Alberta continuing care centre will now have a say in where they work when new pandemic restrictions take effect.

Care homes awaiting start date for new rule limiting workers to one site

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said a new order signed by Labour Minister Jason Copping gives long-term care home workers more rights once they're limited to working at one site. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Workers employed at more than one Alberta continuing care centre will now have more say in where they work when new pandemic restrictions take effect.

However, Alberta Health still has no implementation date set for a new rule limiting workers to one site.

The order, issued earlier this month by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, is supposed to help prevent the unintentional spread of the novel coronavirus between the facilities, where residents are especially vulnerable.

As of Wednesday, 59 of the 87 Alberta people who have died from COVID-19 lived in long-term care or assisted living facilities.

Thirty-four facilities across the province have reported COVID-19 outbreaks, according to Alberta Health. About 10 per cent of people who have tested positive for the disease so far lived in continuing care.

But limiting workers' movement is complicated.

Thousands of Alberta continuing care employees have multiple jobs at more than one site.

The government is trying to ensure all care homes have enough staff to keep residents safe.

Unions representing the workers say they need to be offered enough work hours at one site or better salaries to pay their bills.

New order gives workers more say in placement

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), says a new ministerial order signed by Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping last Friday improves workers' rights.

People who are employed part-time or as casuals at more than one site can choose where they want to work, the order said.

Full-time and part-time employees will work at the facility where they have "regular" status, the order said.

The order replaces earlier instructions that allowed employers to choose which employees to keep, while considering employee preference.

If a worker's hours are reduced by being restricted to one site, the employer should give them priority access to extra hours of work, the new order said.

Smith said workers also now have expedited access to the labour relations board to resolve any disputes that can't be worked out on site.

"It is a much stronger piece of direction and it does come out of consultation directly with the unions," he said.

About one-third of the 17,000 AUPE workers at private care homes have more than one job.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees estimates 40 per cent of the 5,000 care home workers it represents have multiple jobs.

The one worker, one site rule is already mandatory at any facility with a coronavirus outbreak.

Tallying the workforce

Wayne Morishita, executive director of the Alberta Continuing Care Association, said care home leaders have been punching lists of their staff into a provincial database to centralize the information.

So far, of the 40,000 workers entered into the database, 3,500 work at multiple sites.

Morishita says this number suggests many employers and employees have already voluntarily agreed on a single-site arrangement.

Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the single-site rule will take effect "as soon as possible," but didn't specify a timeframe.

The rule was supposed to take effect last Friday, but Hinshaw extended the deadline indefinitely after care home operators said they needed more time.

Pay differences problematic, union says

Smith, meanwhile, is pushing for the provincial government to standardize pay at all public and private care homes in light of the working restrictions.

Calgary's Clifton Manor is one continuing care home where an outbreak of COVID-19 had tragic consequences. Seven residents have died from the disease. (Google Street View)

A $2-an-hour pay top-up Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced last week for health-care aides is a "complete mess" and caused more problems than it solved, Smith said.

Only private continuing care employees, whose salaries are usually lower, qualify for the wage top-ups.

Workers at sites run by Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health, Carewest and Capital Care aren't eligible.

Other front-line workers like licensed practical nurses and housekeepers don't get a top-up, and that's created some tension, Smith said.

"When Minister Shandro made the announcement, he sort of walked into the town square, and threw a few shekels on the ground to see who would go scrambling for it, and then he just walked away," Smith said. "There's no strings attached to this. And it's being applied differently in different ways for different reasons."  

Shandro's press secretary, Steve Buick, said Wednesday the top-up cash is supposed to help stabilize staffing levels and help private care homes provide safe care.

"The minister met just yesterday with continuing care associations and assured them we'll continue to work with them and consider any further cost pressures as the pandemic unfolds," Buick said.

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