New Brunswick·CBC explains

What you need to know about the nursing home labour dispute

The union representing nursing home workers is back at the negotiating table hoping to strike a deal to avoid further strike action.

Talks resumed Monday after thousands of workers prepared to go on strike for higher pay, better conditions

Hundreds demonstrated in solidarity with the union representing nursing home workers during a 2018 protest. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

The union representing nursing home workers is back at the negotiating table after a court order prevented members across the province from going on strike.

During a tense weekend, the union gave 24 hours' notice a strike, a move that was made moot after the province went to court and received a 10-day stay of an arbitration decision, preventing a strike during that time. 

Here's what you need to know about the dispute:

The players

There are more than 4,100 workers at 46 non-profit nursing homes in New Brunswick involved in the labour dispute. 

They include licensed practical nurses, resident attendants, support service workers such as dietary and laundry workers and some clerical workers. Registered nurses, who are represented by the New Brunswick Nurses Union, are not involved.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees represents the workers, and the 46 nursing home locals are collectively represented by the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions.

The list of nursing homes involved can be found at the end of the article.

On the other side of the table is the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes, which represents all 68 licensed nursing homes in the province. The majority are operated by non-profit community boards, but there are also privately owned facilities such as the Shannex properties, which would not be affected by a strike.

A 2014 report said there are roughly 4,500 residents staying in nursing homes.

The association receives funding from the province that is, in turn, directed to the nursing home boards. 

The association considers itself a sector advocate that helps facilitate change while working with nursing homes and government. It does not have authority to implement change.

Until Monday, the province was not represented at the bargaining table, but by the end of the day, it had accepted an invitation from the nursing homes to take part in talks. 


The negotiations

Contract negotiations have been going on for more than two years after the workers' last contract expired in October 2016.

A tentative four-year agreement, which included a one per cent pay increase in each year, on par with increases in the hospital sector, was rejected by CUPE members in July 2018.

The union is seeking a pay increase that's "cost of living and little bit more," said union representative Patrick Roy. It's not releasing the exact number.

Current wage rates for nursing home workers range between $18 and $25 an hour, depending on the position, Roy said. Licensed practical nurses are at the higher end of the bracket, earning a bit more than $24 an hour, he said.

The increase isn't necessarily about getting on par with wages in other jurisdictions, he said, noting New Brunswick workers earn about $6 less an hour than their counterparts in Ontario.

Union representative Patrick Roy said workers want more than the pay increase of one per cent a year in a four-year deal. (Radio-Canada)

"We understand the economic situation in the province, but, I mean, this idea from the government saying, 'It's one (per cent) or nothing,' is not acceptable to our members," he said.

The nursing homes association has said the 2018 offer remains on the table.

The union also wants to improve recruitment and retention, Roy said.

"To encourage people to come work in a nursing home, we need to make it more interesting for them and the only way to do that is going to be increasing the wages because the workload is so hard," he said.

"People show up, do some orientation and say, 'I'm not doing this for this pay,' and walk away."

Improving working conditions is another key issue for the union. Roy said the workload increases every year, but the funded hours of care do not. Nursing homes are often operating short-staffed as well, he said, and residents do not receive the mandated 2.9 hours of direct care per day.

Those issues fall outside a collective bargaining agreement and into the hands of legislators. The association said it is committed to advocating for improved hours of care among other improvements.

The strike vote

There have been protests and strike threats since October 2016 and Labour Minister Trevor Holder said talks had reached a deadlock in February 2019.

A strike vote was called for March 7, and the results were overwhelming in favour of a walkout. A simple majority was needed, but the the overall yes vote was above 90 per cent.

Then the union sent notice, at 3 a.m. on March 9 that workers could legally go on strike in 24 hours.

But by the end of that day, the province had gone to the Court of Queen's Bench and received a 10-day stay of the labour board ruling, making any strike by workers in that time illegal.

The province said its hand was forced and the stay was necessary to protect New Brunswickers living in nursing homes and their families.

The unions called the move "underhanded" and said their lawyers weren't involved in the hearing that brought about the stay, so the judge heard a one-sided story.

Both sides agreed to go back to the negotiating table Monday.

Who can strike?

Things get a little murky here.

In 2009, the province passed a law to ensure some nursing home staff would remain on the job in the event of a strike. However, the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act is in dispute and ultimately being ignored by the union.

A 2018 New Brunswick labour board decision concluded the law violates collective bargaining rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The union said the decision means the entire law is invalid.

The association said the "decision was unclear," and now the provincial government is seeking a judicial review. It's not clear when the review would take place.

The province did receive a stay of the labour board decision on Saturday, which means that workers at 45 out of 46 nursing homes could not go on strike during a 10-day period.

Dorothy Shephard, the province's minister of social development, said she considers nursing home workers an essential service. (Radio-Canada)

"Our government feels the care provided to nursing home residents is an essential service," said Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard.

This is a critical issue because, according to the union's interpretation, every worker could walk off the job.

Roy said there is still the possibility government could impose separate back-to-work legislation.

What about the residents?

If the workers strike, the care of residents falls to management and registered nurses at the nursing homes as well as families, Roy said.

The nursing home association said it is "working closely with our member nursing homes and with government to support the homes and their strike contingency plans, in the event of a CUPE strike."

Familiar issues

This isn't new territory. Both sides have been fighting over wage issues, workplace conditions and staffing for years. There have been several labour disputes since the turn of the century alone and the relationship remains fraught.

In 2001, a strike ended after two days when the province pledged to resolve growing workloads and the union signed a four-year contract. Months later, nursing home workers protested the lack of progress on the issue.

The Bernard Lord government introduced back-to-work legislation hours after the 2001 walkout began. Workers said at the time that they voted in favour of a negotiated settlement with a gun to their heads.

Workers have long called for improved working conditions in New Brunswick nursing homes. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Following the brief strike, a government-commissioned study concluded staffing was a major concern — and, in 2003, the union said residents and workers are suffering because of it.

In 2010, a retroactive agreement was signed nearly a year and a half after the previous contract had expired.

Workers continued to make headlines in the years since, arguing the workload continues to mount and the province needs to do more to find a resolution.

Nursing homes involved

  • Dalhousie Nursing Home, Dalhousie
  • Mount St. Joseph Nursing Home, Miramichi
  • Miramichi Senior Citizens Home, Miramichi
  • Villa Providence Shediac, Shediac
  • Villa Beauséjour, Caraquet
  • Les Résidences Mgr. Chiasson, Shippagan
  • Victoria Glen Manor, Perth-Andover
  • York Manor, Fredericton
  • Foyer Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Bathurst
  • Carleton Manor, Woodstock
  • Rocmaura Nursing Home, Saint John
  • Kenneth E. Spencer Memorial Home, Moncton
  • Grand Manan Nursing Home, Grand Manan
  • Villa du Repos, Moncton
  • Les Résidences Lucien Saindon, Lamèque
  • Church of St. John and St. Stephen Home, Saint John
  • Central New Brunswick Nursing Home, Boiestown
  • Campbellton Nursing Home, Campbellton
  • Kiwanis Nursing Home, Sussex
  • Campobello Lodge, Campobello
  • Mill Cove Nursing Home, Mill Cove
  • Forest Dale Home, Riverside-Albert
  • The Salvation Army Lakeview Manor, Riverview
  • Foyer Ste-Elizabeth, Baker Brook
  • Le Manoir de Grand-Sault, Grand-Sault
  • Résidences Mgr. Melanson, Saint-Quentin
  • Villa Sormany, Robertville
  • Lincourt Manor, St. Stephen
  • Foyer St-Thomas de la Vallée de Memramcook, Memramcook
  • Les Résidences Inkerman, Inkerman
  • Drew Nursing Home, Sackville
  • Kennebec Manor, Saint John
  • Tobique Valley Manor, Plaster Rock
  • Jordan Lifecare Centre, River Glade
  • Villa St-Joseph, Tracadie-Sheila
  • Turnbull Nursing Home, Saint John
  • Foyer Notre-Dame de Saint-Léonard, Saint-Léonard
  • River View Manor, Bath
  • Tabusintac Nursing Home, Tabusintac
  • Dr. V. A. Snow Centre, Hampton
  • La Villa Maria, Saint-Louis de Kent
  • Foyer Assomption, Rogersville
  • Kings Way Care Centre, Quispamsis
  • Residence Jodin, Edmundston
  • Le Complexe Rendez-Vous, Neguac

With files from Shane Magee