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Obstetrics closure renews calls for pandemic compensation for N.W.T. frontline workers

Northwest Territories Health Minister Julie Green says nurses want better support from management, less turnover, more comprehensive orientation and more staff.

Compensation isn't why nurses are dissatisfied, claims health minister

Health Minister Julie Green said compensation isn't one of the reasons why nurses are leaving the Northwest Territories, despite a letter from nurses asking for a pay raise. (CBC photo)

Northwest Territories Health Minister Julie Green acknowledged in the Legislative Assembly Monday the importance of morale and "solid organizational culture" in order to retain health care staff.

To improve that culture, Green said what nurses want is better support from management, less turnover, more comprehensive orientation and more staff. 

In a recent exit survey with N.W.T. nurses who left their position between January and August of 2021, Green said those, along with "dissatisfaction with management" were key reasons why nurses said they left. 

Green also listed "personal reasons," including moving to accompany a partner to a new position, as a top reason nurses gave for leaving.    

Green said the survey found nurses' workplace satisfaction "is not tied to compensation," despite nurses asking for increased compensation for work throughout the pandemic. 

In a letter sent last month to all N.W.T. MLAs and Cabinet, nurses asked for a $4-an-hour wage increase retroactive to March 2020, retention bonuses for current staff, signing bonuses for new hires and the return of personal sick time that nurses had to use to isolate after being exposed to COVID-19 at work. 

In her member statement Monday, Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said the Northwest Territories is the only Canadian jurisdiction that did not use federal COVID-19 funds to compensate frontline healthcare workers.

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby poses for a photo at the N.W.T. legislature in May 2020. Nokleby says the territory should bring in a pandemic-related pay increase for nurses. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

"The N.W.T. is the only province or territory in Canada where frontline staff have not received any pandemic or hazard pay," Nokleby said. "Our frontline workers deserve retroactive pandemic pay now."

Nurses in British Columbia and Ontario received temporary hourly pay bumps shortly after the pandemic began. There were also one-time payments of up to $2,000 for some frontline workers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador; as well as signing bonuses in Prince Edward Island

Nokleby also mentioned signing bonuses in Yukon and Nunavut, though CBC was unable to confirm whether signing bonuses were tied directly to the pandemic.

Nokleby stressed that the pressure on N.W.T. nurses began long before the pandemic. 

"This is not acceptable," she said. "Our residents deserve nurses that are adequately compensated and at the top of their game, happy to be at work, not beaten down by years of poor treatment and disrespect."

Caroline Wawzonek, the Northwest Territories minister of finance, said last week that she and Green have already have been looking at options "financially and otherwise" for health workers and frontline staff.

Union of Northern Workers president Gayla Thunstrom says the union "would be happy to hear suggestions from the employer for extra compensation for front-line workers." (Union of Northern Workers )

In an email Friday, Union of Northern Workers (UNW) president Gayla Thunstrom said the collective agreement between the union and territorial government provides "plenty of flexibility" for the territorial government "if they are willing to sit down and have meaningful discussions with the union."

Thunstrom pointed specifically to page 189 of the previous collective agreement, which she says still applies. That document states that the territory must meet with the union to negotiate any "labour market supplement" — that is, extra pay to help encourage recruitment and retention of employees.

Thunstrom said the territory has yet to approach the union about any labour shortage, "but the UNW would be happy to hear suggestions from the employer for extra compensation for front-line workers."

Green told the assembly Monday that a preliminary meeting with the UNW did take place over the weekend.

Green declined to answer comment ahead of a media briefing on the obstetrics unit closure Wednesday afternoon.

With files from John Van Dusen

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