COVID-19 pandemic pauses Alberta government plans for health cuts

Plans to trim the number of front-line health-care workers in Alberta are on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, Health Minister Tyler Shandro says.

Province will likely increase the number of front-line health staff

Health Minister Tyler Shandro speaks at the COVID-19 update the Alberta legislature on Friday. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Plans to cut the number of front-line health-care workers in Alberta are on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, Health Minister Tyler Shandro says.

Shandro said Friday Alberta will likely need more health-care workers to cope with the global spread of respiratory disease COVID-19, which has killed more than 5,000 people.

"This has definitely changed everything," he said of the pandemic. "We are going to make sure that AHS [Alberta Health Services] has the resources that it needs. We are not going to be making decisions in response to COVID-19 that are going to be political."

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews and Shandro told reporters Friday that AHS would lay off no employees during the response to COVID-19.

The messages are in sharp contrast to November, when the United Conservative Party government and AHS gave notices to health-care unions that it would reduce the number of full-time workers through attrition and layoffs.

All told, the notices said between 3,900 and 4,900 front-line positions would be eliminated during the coming three years, including 500 nurses.

Premier wants expedited budget

Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said Friday he was pleased to hear no job reductions were imminent.

However, the pledge doesn't line up with near-frozen health spending in the proposed 2020 provincial budget, he said.

"We feel very strongly that the government should simply acknowledge their budget is no longer worth the paper it was written on," McGowan said.

Premier Jason Kenney told reporters at the legislature Friday he wants the Opposition NDP's co-operation to pass the 2020 budget as soon as possible, in case the legislature needs to shut down as a precaution.

The spring sitting is scheduled to resume Monday.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley said Friday her party can't support a budget that claws money out of the health-care system.

"He's asking us to close our eyes, cross our fingers and pass a budget that we know will hurt and trust him that he will fix it afterwards," Notley said.

Job-protected leave grows to 14 days for people in isolation

The premier also announced new labour code changes Friday that prevent Alberta workers from losing their jobs while isolating themselves during the pandemic.

Workers who need to self-isolate or care for an isolated loved one will be eligible for 14 days of leave without putting their jobs at risk.

The Employment Standards Code says workers who have been on the job for at least 90 days are entitled to take five unpaid days off each year for their health or to meet their responsibilities to a family member. With a doctor's note, they can also spend up to 16 weeks off work for quarantine, injury or illness.

The changes will waive the requirements for isolated people to provide a doctor's note or have worked for 90 days to qualify for leave.

"We will make sure that no one has to choose between work and doing what is necessary to protect public health," Kenney said Friday. "Moreover, we don't want Albertans impacted by COVID-19 to feel that they must go to work to sustain their income so they can pay their bills and take care of their families."

Alberta's chief medical officer of health recommends that anyone who has returned from travel outside Canada isolate themselves at home for 14 days to prevent the spread of the potentially fatal virus.

Employers are forbidden from laying off or terminating an Alberta employee on leave, unless the employer shuts down business.

On Wednesday, McGowan called on the government to grant all employees up to 14 days of paid sick leave per year.

Although a Friday government news release described the leave as "paid," details were unavailable about whether the government or employers would cover the cost.

A labour and immigration spokesperson said the details were still being worked out but would be shared they become available. 

Notley cast doubt on whether the government could require employers to offer paid sick days without changes to legislation.

As of Friday afternoon, the World Health Organization said 136,895 people in 123 countries had developed the COVID-19 respiratory infection. The organization said 5,077 people had died.