Alberta Nurses Association

Alberta Nurses Association on the steps of the Legislature (source: ANA)

I’m not the first guy to poke the hornets nest of social media outrage. I regularly poke forks at environmentalists, politicians, First Nations politicians, and an assortment of categories of social justice warriors. But never have I received such an hysterical and vitriolic response as I did when I dared to question the work ethic of some unionized nurses in Alberta.

It was a simple and anecdotal tweet (most are). I wrote of a time when I was at a hospital and observed a number of nurses sitting around in the ward island drinking coffee, shuffling paper and complaining of their lot in life while a lone young nurse made the rounds on their behalf. Perhaps the tweet was a bit unfair. It wasn’t nice (I rarely am). But the response to it was explosive.

I was called every name in the book. People threatened to report it to Twitter (for what I don’t know). People called for boycotts of my restaurant and implied threats to my wellbeing (“I hope you don’t need the care of a nurse anytime soon”). This went on for days as the tweet was clearly being shared in union email lists and I was even beginning to be attacked by American nurses online.

This reaction did not make me consider backing down, apologizing or deleting the tweet, despite their demands that I do so. The response to my tweet made me begin to wonder why nurses felt so insecure about critique. Did they have something to hide? If we take a closer look at things, it appears so.

Alberta has been in a recession for years and it is clear that government deficits have to be tackled before debt servicing costs overwhelm us. Alberta decisively elected a UCP government on a platform to clean up our finances. Tasked with balancing the budget, the government can’t help but look at healthcare, which makes up a whopping 43 per cent of our provincial expenditures. Salaries make up a large part of our healthcare budget, and with tens of thousands of nurses, it only stands to reason that their compensation scheme should be examined.

When we look at how Alberta nurses are paid, “scheme” is the most appropriate term to use. While their base hourly rates are in line with or slightly above the average compensation levels at a glance, the other perks built into their contract are unimaginable when compared to private-sector workplaces.

The overtime payments to part-time nurses are the most egregious. While part-time workers make up 19 per cent of all other occupations in Alberta, 43 per cent of nurses are part-time. While nurses routinely go on about their long days and about how short-staffed they are, why are half of them part-time? Digging a little deeper, the answer becomes apparent.

Part-time nurses have “designated days of rest” built into their schedules. If any of these part-time nurses are called in on one of these days, they receive double-pay for that shift, even though they are doing a part-time week.

Nurses get 1.5 sick days per month which they can bank as well. In juggling schedules with others, they can ensure that many conveniently need to work on a “designated day of rest” and take double-pay. While the Alberta Nurses Association (ANA) claims it is chronically short-staffed, nurses often take overtime for working extended hours. A simple solution to this problem is to designate the majority of nursing positions as being full time. The rest of us have to work 40 or more hours per week. Why is it unreasonable to expect that of nurses?

Full-time ANA nurses get an annual top-up bonus of $1,750 per year. This costs tens of millions annually and it is based on a letter of understanding between the government and the union which provides no rationale for this extra payment. If it isn’t in the contract, why are we paying it?

While we shouldn’t begrudge anybody for having a pension plan, the nurses of Alberta have a more than ample one. The defined benefit plan contributions are matched by the employer (that is, taxpayers) plus 1 per cent. On top of that, nurses can have contributions to an RRSP or tax-free savings account matched by employer contributions up to two per cent of the nurse’s earnings. Good on them, but let’s not let anybody pretend that nurses are not well taken care of for retirement.

Nurses have a tough and important job. The majority of them work hard in environments of high physical and emotional stress. They should be compensated well for this highly skilled position. Because if we are to pay them well, the compensation of nurses should be under more, rather than less scrutiny. Taxpayers deserve the best band for their buck from the healthcare system.

Premier Jason Kenney promised that he would balance the budget without cutting frontline healthcare services. A step towards this could be achieved by simply increasing the full-time designation of more nurses and removing some of these non-contractual perks that the full-time ones are getting. The nurse’s union doesn’t want the public to know the details of their contracts, and so they loudly try to shout down anyone that raises the subject.

Between 2014 and 2018, total workers pay in Alberta dropped seven per cent while Alberta government compensation rose by 12 per cent. Put another way, the differential between those working in the government and those working in the private sector spread by 19 per cent in just four years. This is unfair in a period of recession, and it is not unreasonable to look at bringing public sector worker compensation in line with today’s economic reality.

The Kenney government has some tough decisions to make in the coming years. Every provincial role and position needs to be examined to ensure that we are getting the most from them. This includes nurses. In light of their response to simple critique, it’s clear that they know it.

Nurses are indeed only human. That means they have needs but they also have flaws. Some are milking the system and it needs to be addressed. Nobody is irreplaceable, and no position is sacred.

Opinion & Broadcast Editor

Cory Morgan is the Opinion & Broadcast Editor of the Western Standard and the Host of ‘Triggered’ based in the Calgary Headquarters. He has worked in independent media and the Alberta oil and gas industry.

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