N.S. health authority, IWK backtrack on overtime changes for staff
New interpretation of contracts saw changes affecting the shifts that qualified for overtime pay
The province's health authority is retreating on a wildly unpopular change in the way overtime is interpreted for nurses and other health-care staff until grievances are resolved.
In recent months, the Nova Scotia Health Authority and IWK Health Centre changed their interpretation of overtime hours and pay in the workers' contracts.
Up until recently, overtime rates were paid for additional shifts regardless of whether someone had taken sick time or a day off in the previous two weeks. Under the new interpretation, overtime rates only kick in once a worker has completed a full cycle of hours during the pay period.
While the change didn't elicit much response from some bargaining units, it got strong opposition from nurses, the largest group of employees affected by the change and the source of the most overtime work.
A gesture of good will
"We certainly heard some concerns from some of our staff and managers and the unions about staffing levels and so on," said Carmelle d'Entremont, the health authority's vice-president of people and organizational development.
"So we've kind of decided that given that this has been a big adjustment in the system, that it would be wise for us to take a pause."
While she couldn't say precisely how many people were turning down overtime shifts following the change, d'Entremont said staffing did become an issue in some parts of the province with respect to nursing.
"It's also, I guess, a gesture of good will to allow us some time to work through with the unions on a resolution."
She said the move allows for a cooling-off period between the sides while they also try to work together to address staffing and recruitment challenges.
Nova Scotia Nurses' Union president Janet Hazelton said she and her members were very pleased by the news.
Hazelton said many of her members were turning down overtime shifts because of the change in interpretation from what had been the accepted practice for 15 years.
"And then all of a sudden, when we have a [staff] shortage and they're crunched for time and they're overworked, they're being told what we've been doing for 15 years, we're not doing anymore."
While she acknowledged many nurses were turning down extra work, Hazelton said she did not believe there were ethical concerns about potentially leaving colleagues short staffed.
"I think it's come to a point now where they're just saying, 'You know, enough is enough.' We don't want our nurses working all this overtime. Let's be really clear about that. We need the problem solved and that's recruitment and retention of new nurses — that's what needs to happen."
Potential of arbitration
Hazelton said the health authority is making efforts on that front, but added there's more work to do.
D'Entremont said the health authority would stay with the former overtime system until the grievances are resolved — either between the two sides or with the use of an arbitrator. While she said savings are expected from the change, d'Entremont could not provide an estimate of how much.
Premier Stephen McNeil said he stands by the change in interpretation, calling it a matter of principle, but said he was disappointed the health authority didn't wait for a resolution on the matter, such as an arbitrator's ruling, before acting.
"We believe the position that's been taken is the right one, but let's let an independent third party determine whether or not our interpretation of that overtime rule is right."
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With files from Jean Laroche