PEI Nurses Union put contract negotiations on hold during the election campaign
The PEI Nurses Union says its members are very disappointed and frustrated that their contract negotiations have been put on hold during the election campaign.
Nurses have been out of contract for two years.
Union President Barbara Brookins said they were at a “critical juncture” in negotiations with Health PEI when the election was called.
They had scheduled a meeting for next week and hoped to reach an agreement before the summer.
Brookins said they were told they would not return to the table until mid-June.
“Our nurses fought for two, three, four years. Like it keeps going and we don’t think it can get any worse and it’s getting worse. So we fought last summer,” she said.
“Nurses have been asked time and again to step up, do more, keep the system together and we cannot continue to rely on nurses. We just can’t. The system is crumbling and we need to address it now. We can’t even wait a month.”
Brookins said the union spoke to Health PEI, but she said they were told the agency’s hands were tied.
“The thing is, we’re talking about Health PEI, it’s supposed to be a crown company. It is said to stay away from the government. And that’s not the case. Like this is a good example of how it isn’t,” she said.
Brookins said nurses were concerned about the speed of contract negotiations.
“We have holes in the system all over the place right now, we have construction sites where we don’t have permanent RNs working on those construction sites. And you know we’re trying to stabilize the healthcare system. But we can’t do it alone, and it shouldn’t be done on the backs of registered nurses.”
On the campaign trail, PC Party leader Dennis King said his previous government had been in talks with the nurses’ union for over a year.
He said the nurses had presented a packet of queries and the Treasury had initiated a response which the PCS would pick up right after the election if elected.
“I respect the collective bargaining process and my goal would be to get a good contract for our nurses who are doing great work. They need to be paid more, and we’re willing to do that,” King said.
“I think that with every election there is a certain pause in terms of government activity… I don’t think this is the first time in the history of the PEI that we’ve had an election where we’ve had to have some of ours.” Negotiations or other talks are on hold, but we would be ready to resume that immediately.”
King said his government also negotiated a staff retention bonus package that helped stabilize the workforce.
“We know we have to go further. But this isn’t just about money. Money plays a big role, but there is also a safe work environment. There are a number of things that we need to ensure we can provide for our nurses. And as I said, that would be my obligation,” he said.
Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker said it was very stressful for nurses to be out of contract for so long.
“This is the latest example of a government that simply does not appreciate or respect our wonderful frontline healthcare workers. They had two years to negotiate this agreement with the PEI Nurses Union. And they chose not to complete this. Indeed, they are using this unnecessary election to further delay the conclusion of these negotiations,” Bevan-Baker said.
“They are told that you have waited two years without a contract. We’re going to make you wait another six months, and that’s totally unacceptable. And our healthcare system is in crisis.”
The Green Party leader said if a deal isn’t negotiated soon, PEI will not only lose many of its current nurses, but it will also have a harder time recruiting new ones.
In a statement today, Liberal leader Sharon Cameron said she supports the nurses’ union.
“PEI nurses deserve the respect and dignity of a fair employment contract that reflects the important role they play in our healthcare system.”
Cameron pointed to the Liberal Party’s electoral platform calling for measures to deal with the crisis, including legal standards for nurse-patient ratios and improved pay that attracts new nurses and retains existing ones.
In an email statement, Health PEI said it had informed the union it was ready to return to the negotiating table in mid-April. It said it was unaware of the origin of the mid-June data but had contacted the union to clarify.
Regarding the negotiations, it said: “Health PEI is bound by the policies of the interim government and cannot participate in negotiations that could bind the new government. We have been told this by multiple sources including government PEI officials and our legal counsel.”
Constitutional Attorney Lyle Skinner says that while governments can’t make binding decisions, that doesn’t mean negotiations have to end.
“To conclude a collective agreement which would certainly not be allowed under the rules of janitorial practice as this is a definitive situation which will make it very difficult for any future government to reverse. But if discussions are still ongoing, I don’t see why there should be any obstacle on a constitutional basis.”