Thousands of health care administrative workers in Nova Scotia are eyeing a strike three years after their contract expired.
The unions representing them say wages remain the major sticking point, but they’re open to returning to the bargaining table. The president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) says these staff members deserve more.
“The premier has been focusing on health care,” says Sandra Mullen. “Certainly, nurses, doctors, all of those contracts have been signed with promises to keep those wages where they need to be within Atlantic Canada.”
She says the wages of admin staff haven’t kept pace with inflation as some make as low as $18 per hour and are now taking on second jobs to help make ends meet.
The NSGEU represents nearly 3,800 of the more than 5,000 administration workers in Nova Scotia’s hospitals and community care settings. The remainder are covered by CUPE and Unifor.
“They keep that operation [health care] running. They schedule appointments, they enter information that the doctors need, they do a multitude of things,” says Mullen.
The Essential Health and Community Services Act requires employers and unions to establish an essential services agreement before a strike or lockout can happen.
“I won’t allow Nova Scotians to go without access to essential services,” says Premier Tim Houston. “Particularly, I will not allow Nova Scotians to go without access to health care because of a labour disruption. It will not happen.”
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Mullen says the unions are working with the employer (Nova Scotia Health and the IWK) and the labour board on an essential services plan, which could be finalized by the end of the month.
Despite movement towards a strike, Mullen says they’re open to resuming negotiations.
“We have identified a number of key elements that could help resolve this because this contract — had they agreed to it, had they accepted it — would have been over at the end of October 2023. We would then be going back to the table to continue negotiating,” says Mullen.
“We have seen the financial offers from the province for those upcoming years. Of course with nurses, doctors, there’s a lot of hidden money there. It’s certainly not a very easy situation.”
The premier says the province would also like to see talks pick back up.
“Look at our track record on negotiations,” says Houston. “I’m not interested in these types of tactics where we try to take it away from the table and negotiate. I think our own track record in two short years shows our commitment to the collective bargaining process. If there are any impediments to collective bargaining, it’s not us.”
In a statement, the province says it values the work of everyone in the health care system including administrative professionals.
“The Province is committed to open, honest, and meaningful collective bargaining with public sector unions, and we are hopeful the employers and Council of Unions can reach an agreement without any disruption to services,” says the statement from Communications Nova Scotia Managing Director Michelle Lucas.
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