Province, nursing home workers reach tentative agreement
Tentative agreement announced Wednesday for more than 4,000 workers at 51 non-profit homes
An acrimonious contract dispute that had thousands of New Brunswick nursing home workers on the verge of a strike last year may be ending after a tentative agreement was reached Tuesday.
Union and nursing home representatives as well as the province's minister of social development confirmed the agreement in separate interviews Wednesday.
The agreement still needs to be approved by union members, who had previously rejected a tentative agreement in 2018.
"What brought us to where we are today is the working conditions," Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, said in an interview Wednesday. "Whether it's ratified or not, it's the members who have the final say."
Teare said the details will be kept confidential until it is presented to members. It's not clear when that may take place given the pandemic and restrictions on gatherings.
"We still deal with the most vulnerable," Teare said. "We don't want to add any additional exposure by ratifying."
The union represents about 4,000 workers at 51 non-profit homes around the province. The workers include licensed practical nurses, resident attendants, dietary and laundry workers and some clerical workers.
The contract talks involve three groups.
The New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions represents the bargaining units at each of the nursing homes. The New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes represents the homes and serves as the employer negotiating the contract.
But the province is involved because it funds those nursing homes.
Jodi Hall, executive director of the association of nursing homes, said the group is pleased to have reached an agreement.
"We remain extremely hopeful for the next steps ahead," Hall said in an interview. "It's been a trying journey for everyone involved. We're looking forward to getting back to being 100 per cent focused on what we do best, which is caring for our residents."
Dorothy Shephard, New Brunswick's minister of social development, said she always believed a negotiated settlement could be reached.
"I'm extremely grateful that we're at this point," Shephard said.
She declined to say whether the province agreed to wage increases sought by the union.
Current wages range between $18 and $24 an hour, depending on the position and seniority.
Last fall, the province tabled what it described as a "final offer" that included wage increases over four years of one, 1.25, 1.5 and 1.75 per cent.
The union rejected it, saying it was seeking a three per cent increase in each of the four years of a contract.
Premier Blaine Higgs suggested that if the province agreed to the increases, it would trigger similar increases for other public sector unions, something that he said would cost the government an additional $300 million per year. Higgs suggested that would prompt cuts to other services or a tax increase.
The last contract expired in 2016. Talks broke down last winter and members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike.
Just hours before that strike was set to begin, the province secured a court order that barred them from walking off the job.
It led to a protracted series of legal challenges that ended with several rulings calling a section of provincial law declaring the workers an essential service as unconstitutional because it limited the right to strike.
By the end of 2019, the province amended that law to address the constitutional issue and added a binding arbitration process.
The law includes conditions an arbitrator must take into account, including the government's ability to pay for any wage increases.
The union had previously said it was mulling a legal challenge of the amended law.
There had been little public discussion of the contract dispute over the following five months ahead of the announcement Wednesday.