P.E.I. nurses, without a contract for 2 years, see further delays because of election

Union president Barbara Brookins said they were at a "critical point" in negotiations with Health P.E.I. when the election was called.

'The system is crumbling and we need to address it now'

person at a desk
P.E.I. Nurses Union president Barbara Brookins says losing time negotiating during the election campaign could have dire effects for the Island's health-care system. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

The P.E.I. Nurses Union says its members are very disappointed and frustrated about their contract negotiations being put on hold during the election campaign. 

Nurses haven't had a contract for two years. 

Union president Barbara Brookins said they were at a "critical point" in negotiations with Health P.E.I. when the election was called. 

They had a meeting scheduled for next week, and were hoping to have an agreement before the summer.

Brookins said they've been told they now won't get back to the table until mid-June. 

nurse at work
The P.E.I. Nurses Union says nurses are struggling and have been for years. She says they can't continue to carry the weight of the health care crisis any more. (CBC)

"Our nurses have been struggling for two, three, four years. Like it just keeps going on and on and we don't think it can get any worse and it does get worse. So last summer we struggled," she said. 

"Nurses have been asked over and over again to pick up, to do more, to hold the system together, and we can't continue to rely on nurses. We just can't. The system is crumbling and we need to address it now. We can't wait even a month." 

Brookins said the union has talked to Health P.E.I., but she said they were told the agency's hands are tied. 

"The thing is we talk about Health P.E.I., it's supposed to be a Crown corporation. It's supposed to act arms-length from government. And that's not the case. Like this is a good example of how it's not the case," she said. 

Brookins said nurses are worried about the speed of contract negotiations. 

"We have holes everywhere in the system right now, we have work sites where we have no permanent RNs working in those work sites. And you know, we're trying to stabilize the health system. But we can't do it alone, and it should not be done on the backs of registered nurses or nurse practitioners."

person at podium
PC leader Dennis King says he respects the collective bargaining process and if elected, his government would go back to negotiations with nurses right away. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

On the campaign trail, PC party leader Dennis King said his previous government had been talking with the nurses union for over a year. 

He said the nurses presented a package of requests and that the Treasury Board had initiated a response that the PCs would pick up right after the election, if they are elected. 

"I respect the collective bargaining process and my goal would be to get a good contract in place for our nurses who do amazing work. They need to be paid more and we're willing to do that," King said. 

"I think that whenever an election takes place, there is a certain pause in terms of government activities .... I don't think this is the first time in the history of P.E.I. that we've had an election where we've had to pause some of our negotiations or other conversations, but we'd be prepared to pick that up right away."

King said his government also negotiated a retention bonus package that helped to stabilize the workforce. 

"We know we need to go further. But it isn't just money that's the issue here. Money is a big part of this, but there's also a safe working environment. There's a whole number of issues that we need to make sure that we can provide for our nurses. And as I say, that would be my commitment," he said. 

person in drug store
Green party leader Peter Bevan-Baker says unless a contract is negotiated soon, P.E.I. will not only lose many of the current nurses working, but it will be harder to attract new ones. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Green party leader Peter Bevan-Baker said not having a contract for this long is creating a lot of distress among nurses. 

"This is the latest example of a government that simply does not value or respect our wonderful frontline healthcare workers. They have had two years to negotiate this agreement with the PEI Nurses Union. And they have chosen not to conclude that. Indeed they're using this election, that was unnecessary, to further delay the completion of these negotiations," Bevan-Baker said. 

"They are being told that you have waited two years without a contract. We're going to keep you waiting another six months and that is completely unacceptable. And our healthcare system is in crisis." 

The Green leader said that unless a contract is negotiated soon, not only will P.E.I. lose many of its current nurses, but it will be harder to attract new ones. 

nurses at work
Nurses on P.E.I. have been without a contract for two years and were expecting to continue negotiations in mid-March. (CBC)

In a statement, Liberal Leader Sharon Cameron said today she supports the nurses union. 

"P.E.I.'s nurses deserve the respect and dignity of a fair labour contract that reflects the vital role they play in our healthcare system."

Cameron pointed to the Liberal Party election platform which calls for measures to address the crisis, including legislated standards for nurse-to-patient ratios and enhanced compensation that attracts new nurses and retains existing ones. 

In an email statement, Health P.E.I. said it notified the union it would be willing to go back to the table in mid-April. It said it is unaware of the origin of the mid-June dates, but has reached out to the union to clarify. 

As for negotiations, it said: "Health P.E.I. is bound by the caretaker government policy and cannot engage in bargaining that could bind the new government. This has been advised to us by multiple sources, including government of P.E.I. officials and our legal counsel."

Constitutional lawyer Lyle Skinner says while governments can't finalize any binding decisions, it doesn't mean negotiations have to stop. 

"Finalizing a collective agreement that would certainly not be allowed under the rules of the caretaker practice because that's a final situation which makes it very difficult for a future government to undo. But if there's still discussions underway I don't see why there would be any impediment from a constitutional basis."

With files from Brittany Spencer


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