Labour disputes holding back wage top-ups for health-care workers

Health-care aides at a third of private Alberta long-term care and seniors’ homes aren’t receiving a $2-an-hour pandemic wage top-up promised by the government two months ago.

Health minister says 85 sites have disagreements over bonus pay

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro says unions have filed grievances at 85 privately operated care homes. (CBC)

Health-care aides at a third of private Alberta long-term care and seniors' homes aren't receiving a $2-an-hour pandemic wage top-up promised by the government two months ago.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday unions have filed grievances at 85 privately operated care homes. He said the grievances are halting the extra pay from going to workers.

"We promised aides this payment for as long as this pandemic lasts," Shandro said in the legislature. "We're funding it, and I expect the unions to help make it happen, not block it."

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) disputes that labour groups are standing in the way of pay. AUPE filed grievances at 51 care homes earlier this month when employers refused to sign agreements documenting how the extra pay would be distributed.

Union vice-president Bonnie Gostola said some employers have paid the extra money to some, but not all aides. Some have paid the top-up rate on only some, but not all, of an employee's hours, she said. AUPE represents about 35,000 health-care workers, including around 17,000 who work in private care facilities.

"We basically want to see some accountability — where this money is going, and that it's actually going to the workers that it was meant to be provided to," Gostola said on Friday.

On April 20, Shandro announced several steps the provincial government was taking to improve staffing levels at long-term care homes and supportive living facilities. The wage top-up was meant to recruit and retain health-care aides in privately run homes, where workers are often paid less than in public facilities.

Last week, Shandro said as many as 20 per cent of employees were away from work when COVID-19 outbreaks first hit some seniors' care homes.

Transferring an extra $7.3 million monthly to about 300 private care homes across the province took about a month and workers were frustrated by the confusing roll out and delays.

Shandro's press secretary, Steve Buick, said Monday the top-ups had begun flowing to all eligible workers during the last month. Disputes have interrupted the top-ups at 85 sites, he said.

The top-up also came as long-term care workers were restricted to working at only one site to prevent the spread of the virus. Many workers have more than one part-time or casual job to earn a living wage.

CUPE files two complaints to labour relations board

Another union that represents about 5,000 long-term care workers in Alberta has also filed two unfair labour practice complaints around compensation during COVID-19.

One complaint alleges the Calgary-area assisted living facility Prince of Peace Manor and Harbour refused to discuss the pay top-up with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

CUPE's complaint alleges the owners are paying the wage top-up only to non-unionized employees. The complaint also said managers were giving workers false information and pressuring them to circulate a decertification petition.

Erin Leson, of Sage Properties Corp., which owns Prince of Peace, said in an email the company can't discuss the case before the labour board. Leson said they have recently worked out an arrangement to get the top-up pay to health-care aides. Leson said the company has followed Alberta Health Services' instructions on the pay bump.

Health care aides in privately run facilities across Alberta are supposed to receive a $2-an-hour wage top-up during the COVID-19 pandemic to help with recruitment and retention of the workers. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

CUPE also filed a complaint against Calgary seniors' residence Amica Britannia. The union alleges the operators offered an incentive program to only some workers during the pandemic without consulting the union.

CUPE also says the company unilaterally limited workers to working at a single site, even though public health orders don't require it there.

Angela Mitchell, regional director of operations for Amica Senior Lifestyles, said in a Monday statement the residence took proactive steps that have thus far prevented COVID cases.

"We can attest to the fact that we have treated our team members with the utmost respect and that we appreciate their valuable contributions toward mitigating the risk of COVID-19 at our residence," the statement said.

Employers deflecting blame, says professor

Bob Barnetson, a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, said the high number of grievances and complaints against private, for-profit care homes suggests some employers are reluctant to pass along the wage top-up to workers.

He said they're trying to deflect blame onto unions to prevent disgruntled workers from walking out.

It is "totally reasonable" for a union to ask for a written agreement governing wage changes, he said.

The government should set a deadline for facility operators to reach pay deals with workers, and spell out the consequences for failing to comply, Barnetson said.

"Giving employers a pot of money without a whole bunch of strings attached to it seems like a recipe for disaster, because of course, employers are subject to the profit imperative," he said. "They're going to act in their own best interests."

Earlier, unions had called on the provincial government to temporarily seize control of long-term care staffing and adopt a uniform wage grid during the pandemic.

Buick said on Monday the government shouldn't interfere with local labour relations matters.

"We gave clear direction to employers on payment of the top-up," he said in an email. "It's wholly unacceptable for either employers or unions to hold up this payment because of unrelated issues."