Edmonton

Vegreville layoffs raise fears of further privatized health care, union says

More than 50 people working for a privately run health-care home in Vegreville being laid off are able to reapply for similar positions — for a lot less money, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says. 

52 nurses, health-care aides and cooks were sent layoff letters last month

The AUPE estimates about 100 people turned out for a rally outside the Century Park supportive living home Monday to protest the layoffs. (Supplied by AUPE)

More than 50 people being laid off from a privately run health-care home in Vegreville will be able to reapply for similar positions — for a lot less money, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says.

Licensed practical nurses, health-care aides and cooks will be out of their jobs by Oct. 31 at the 40-space Century Park home, operated by Optima Living.

The company sent a letter to 52 employees last month saying the decision was made after "careful deliberation," with a focus on enhancing "residents' experience at the facility."

The letter also says the change "offers the prospect of a greater return to our shareholders." 

Rod Feland, an AUPE vice-president, said the members were still negotiating a new contract with the company and likened the layoffs to an illegal lockout. 

"It's almost like residents, seniors, in this community are being held hostage by a private company that just wants to make money off of them," Feland told CBC News Monday. 

Optima Living is contracting B.C.-based Pro Vita Care Management to deliver health-care and food services at Century Park, the company said Monday.  

It means the employees may re-apply for similar positions, to be delivered by Pro Vita starting Nov. 1. 

The union estimates staff who get hired back will get $8 to $10 an hour less than what they make now. 

The AUPE said under the current collective agreement with Optima Living, the lowest salary for health-care aides is about $19.50 an hour, $26 an hour for LPNs and $22 an hour for cooks. 

Pensions and RRSP contributions will be affected, AUPE said. 

Rally to protest layoffs

About 100 people turned out to rally against the layoffs outside Century Park Monday, the union estimated.

Friends of Medicare, union members, and former NDP MLA Jessica Littlewood joined the rally with signs reading "Seniors before profits," "Stop threatening, start negotiating;" and "Quality care matters." 

Edmonton-City Centre MLA David Shepherd posted on social media, raising questions about what the government has in store for health care in Alberta. 

Ali Shivji, marketing director for Optima Living Alberta, calls the layoffs a change to the facility's organizational structure and capacity to "enhance operations and programming on site."

Optima will still take care of administration, recreation and maintenance at the facility. 

"Additional dollars from any of our facilities means that we can just further invest them in enhanced care services," Shivji said. 

For example, savings from this change could go toward other projects in Alberta, such as a facility planned for Sherwood Park in 2020. 

"We're reinvesting in the province and making sure that we engage in a way that does that." 

Feland isn't convinced the move is a reinvestment. 

"I'm afraid that this is exactly the kind of model that our government is looking forward to," he said.

"Our issue with that is, where's the transparency? Where's the accountability? Because it's private companies they don't have to open their books."

Optima is under contract to Alberta Health Services, which has not disclosed how much funding the company is getting. 

"Funds are determined based on three criteria for each facility: number of acute (complex) clients, the size of the facility (how many beds they have) and the occupancy levels," AHS said in a written statement. 

Case managers and local area leaders are on site to monitor activity and care at the site, AHS said.

The health provider said they've been told Pro Vita intends to hire back the majority of the current staff.

280 jobs lost last year

The news comes a year after the town lost a major employer when the Government of Canada's immigrant and refugee case processing centre was relocated to Edmonton.

Vegreville Mayor Tim MacPhee said Optima's decision doesn't bode well for the town. 

"The fact that we could lose 52 jobs in this community is terrible," MacPhee said Monday. "To lose even more jobs right now when we're trying to get back to some sort of normal pace in this town, it's not good." 

MacPhee said he's ready to approach Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro if quality of care at Century Park isn't up to par. 

Alberta's Ministry of Health did not provide comment in response to CBC News' request, instead saying AHS is overseeing the process and would be best placed to answer any questions.

@natashariebe

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