Whitehorse hospital strike looms

Whitehorse General Hospital nurses and professional staff are ready to strike if a deal is not reached by Thursday.

Whitehorse General Hospital nurses and professional staff are ready to strike if a deal is not reached by Thursday.

“The hospital hasn’t taken us seriously at the bargaining table in terms of some of our concerns,” said Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada negotiator James Bart on Tuesday afternoon.

“Management is old-fashioned,” he said. “They’re not keeping up with the times.

“It’s sort of like, ‘This is how we’ve always done it up here,’ and that seems to work in their minds but it sure doesn’t work in today’s world with the nursing shortage.”

Bargaining over wages broke off in April and both the union and the hospital requested a conciliator, said hospital CEO Joe MacGillivray.

The conciliation process began Tuesday and ends Thursday.

“We at the hospital are optimistic we will be able to successfully conclude negotiations through this process,” said MacGillivray.

But it’s not looking good, said Bart.

“Conciliation is not as productive as I’d hoped to date,” he said. “And things are moving a lot slower than I’d hoped.”

If an agreement isn’t reached, nurses and professional staff at the hospital, “are in a legal position to strike by July 30, at the latest,” said Bart.

The union is asking for a five per cent wage increase annually over the next three years.

“There are lots of things to be fixed,” said Bart. “But money is the first answer, because in order to make working conditions bearable, (hospital management) have to hire more people. And they can’t hire more people if nobody will come here.

“So it’s kind of a vicious circle — the less people they can hire and the worse the working conditions get, the more people leave and then the more people you’ve got to attract.”

Currently, Whitehorse General’s nurses have the highest hourly rate in Canada.

But that’s changing, said Bart.

By next year, Alberta will be paying its nurses and professional staff three per cent more than Yukon rates, and it will continue to rise.

Several months ago, Alberta settled for an annual increase of five per cent over the next three years. “And it also has some lump-sum payments in there,” said Bart.

So Alberta nurses really got seven per cent annually for the next three years, he said.

Manitoba just settled for a similar sum, while Saskatchewan has offered its nurses a 35 per cent increase over the next four years.

“Saskatchewan just gave that big raise because they said, ‘We know we have to compete with Alberta,’” said Bart.

“Alberta’s just like a big hole sucking everybody up and the folks up here in the Yukon just don’t seem to get it — that’s really the frustrating part.

“If you could see some glimmer that they’re grappling with the situation … but you can’t.

“Why would a person come to the Yukon if they could make just as much money, or more, staying at home in Alberta?”

The Yukon doesn’t “grow nurses,” added Bart.

 Unlike Alberta, BC and many of the other provinces, the territory doesn’t have a training program for nurses, pharmacists or dieticians, said Professional Institute president Michele Demers in a release.

And the Yukon doesn’t seem to notice its total dependence on attracting health-care professionals from other jurisdictions, she said.

“The ‘magic and mystery’ of the Yukon doesn’t cut it,” said Demers.

“Why would anyone with marketable skills come up here for less money and deteriorating working conditions? That’s the mystery.

“The magic, I guess, would be to get the bureaucracy to recognize the precariousness of the situation.”

The union’s wage proposal is in line with what’s happening south of 60, said Bart.

But, when it was put on the table, the hospital turned it down.

“They didn’t even give us a counter, so to speak.” The hospital hasn’t offered anything in the form of a wage increase, he said.

“They used a phrase at the bargaining table, that ‘we’re getting by,’” said Bart. “Well, they’re just getting by, but that’s because people are working extra hours up here.

“I know Copper Ridge (Place) has real problems too.”

The Yukon also has “a relatively old workforce,” said Bart.

“These people are going to retire and that’s when the real problem will hit.”

And the hospital doesn’t have a recruiting scheme.

 “They bring up new grads for summer vacation relief, and they think this is the answer,” he said.

“These young people like to come up and spend three months in the Yukon, then they go back home and look for a real job, so to speak, and hospital thinks that’s enough.”

Alberta’s hospital authority says the province is short 1,400 nurses, added Bart. “So anyone graduating in Alberta, Saskatchewan or BC could get a job in Alberta just like that.”

The Yukon government doesn’t get it, he said. “And the hospital management doesn’t get it either.”

Wages aren’t the only issue.

“They are trying to turn the clock back on sick leave and revert to a plan that is more in line with clerical work rather than nursing and shift work,” said Bart.

But unlike clerical work, nursing is a physical job. Bart’s wife, a nurse in Alberta, has a damaged back.

With this kind of work, sick leave is important, he said.

“And you don’t automatically start with a whole lot of sick leave that will protect your wages when you get sick. What you do is earn sick-leave credits over time, but (hospital management) wants to limit the length of time it takes to get an appropriate sick-leave bank.”

The hospital is also trying to reduce the rate nurses are paid when they cover extra shifts, he said.

“People put in their day’s work, then they’ll go home and the phone rings, ‘We need you,’” said Bart.

“Now, when they’re called in, they’re paid at overtime rates and if the shift goes over a long time it cooks into double-time.

“But the hospital wants to pay these guys straight time.”

The hospital also won’t guarantee pensions, or that its pension plan will continue to exist, said Bart.

The shortage affects physiotherapists, dieticians and pharmacists, not just nurses.

And Yukon pharmacists are paid way below their counterparts Outside, said Bart. “Even the hospital recognizes this, but so far it hasn’t offered to explore any solutions.”

There’s only so much the union can do to solve the problem, he added.

“We can’t hire people, that’s up to management,” he said. “And we can’t take a look at rearranging the workforce to meet needs, or to solve problems.

“All we can say is give us the money so we can attract people up here.”

It is a big wage increase, said Bart. “But it’s not a question of being greedy, it’s a question of staying competitive with the outside world.

“We can be less greedy, if you will, but that’s not going to stop the folks in other jurisdictions from raising their wages beyond what we’re paying here, and then we’re in big trouble.”

Government and hospital management aren’t giving the nursing shortage the attention it deserves, said Bart.

“It seems they are putting their hands behind their backs, crossing their fingers and hoping everything turns out alright.”