Nova Scotia

Union says dispute over OT payments to nurses exacerbating shortages

The contract language hasn't changed, but the way the Nova Scotia Health Authority is interpreting it has since the beginning of February.

Unions have filed grievance against Nova Scotia Health Authority over interpretation of new contract

Nurses with the Nova Scotia Health Authority came under a new contract earlier this month.

More unionized nurses in Nova Scotia are refusing extra shifts because of a dispute over the way their bosses are now interpreting what triggers hours paid at time-and-a-half or more.

The contract language hasn't changed, but the way the Nova Scotia Health Authority is interpreting it has since the beginning of February. New contracts for health workers, including nurses, took effect Feb. 1.

Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said it wasn't fair for workers to be paid one way in January and differently in February.

"Now in a penny-pinching move what the employer has said is, 'You know what, we don't want to pay you for this and we're going follow the language that's in the collective agreement in a different manner,'" said MacLean.

The health authority has determined that nurses scheduled to work 75 hours during a two-week period, but who have had one or more absences due to such things as illness or vacation, should no longer get overtime pay for extra shifts worked during that period.

Nurses continue to be paid overtime for working beyond their scheduled shift.

Jason MacLean is president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. (CBC)

MacLean said the union hadn't advised its members to refuse the extra shifts, but he said nurses were doing it on their own.

"The employer is telling them you're no longer worth what we used to pay you a month ago," he said.

According to MacLean, the message to the nurses was that they are not valued. He warned that would exacerbate shortages in a system reliant on health workers, especially nurses, agreeing to extra shifts.

Tim Guest, the official in charge of nursing at the health authority, acknowledged the change in reading the contract but disputed MacLean's assertion that the refusal to work extra shifts had exacerbated staffing shortages.

"Our nursing workforce is growing in Nova Scotia," he said. "This year we're planning to hire an excess of 400 across the province."

It's "not accurate," he said, to say there are not enough nurses overall, but there are nursing shortages in some regions or in departments that require special skills.

"We do have challenges in isolated, rural communities and we also have challenges in some specialty areas like the intensive care units, emergency departments and the ORs, as an example," he said.

Tim Guest is vice-resident of integrated health services program care and chief nursing officer with the Nova Scotia Health Authority. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Those isolated rural communities include Chéticamp, Shelburne, Pugwash, Springhill and Parrsboro, according to Guest.

As for the decision to re-interpret the language in the collective agreement, Guest called it a clarification of the "interpretation of what the existing language was, and how [the authority is] actually going to manage it."

He said the refusal to do extra shifts might be an "aggravating factor," but he couldn't say whether it would make staff shortages worse.

"The emergency department, we've had some challenges with there. Intensive care units on occasion and that's causing us a little bit a challenge again right now. Certainly some of the operating rooms in the province. We're having some challenges with recruiting some of those specialty areas that require nurses to have additional training to work in."

Both the NSGEU and the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union has filed grievances against the Nova Scotia Health Authority as a result of the change.