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Labour Views: To fix healthcare, invest in the workers

As the union representing all public healthcare workers in the NWT, we have a front seat view of the current system — and it’s not looking good.

As the union representing all public healthcare workers in the NWT, we have a front seat view of the current system — and it’s not looking good.

Health centre and lab closures are becoming routine rather than extraordinary. ‘Recruitment and retention’ have been repeated so often, you start to wonder if the politicians who use them even know what they mean anymore, or if they’re now just buzzwords that make them sound like they’re doing something.

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A prime example of this is the current situation in Hay River. The UNW-PSAC bargaining team that represents workers at the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority (HRHSSA) has been struggling to make progress in collective bargaining with their employer.

This employer says publicly how valued and important their employees are, and that they’re doing everything they can to improve “recruitment and retention”, but they are unwilling to remove any concessions from the bargaining table, and they refuse to negotiate fair wages for these workers.

These workers are dedicated to serving their community, despite demoralizing conditions, extreme fatigue during the pandemic, and years of chronic short staffing. They have been working on skeleton crews at best, and often with no doctors at all.

They continued that dedication during the floods and fires that followed the pandemic, but have been forced to use up their leave banks during evacuations. Already exhausted, many don’t have any vacation days left to rest and recharge.

In a classic case of government hot-potato, the HRHSSA has been stringing their members along at the bargaining table by claiming they can’t do one thing because they’re not the GNWT (whose employees fall under the Public Service Act, whereas HRHSSA employees fall under the Canada Labour Code). However, they also say they won’t do another thing because it’s not what the GNWT does. As the saying goes, they want to have their cake and eat it too.

The HRHSSA throws up its hands and says ‘Sorry, the GNWT holds the purse-strings, our financial mandate comes from the GNWT’s Financial Management Board’. But neither the GNWT nor HRHSSA seem willing to put up the money required to improve “recruitment and retention” of healthcare workers.

The health and social services minister can boast all she wants about how many ads her department has placed, how many job fairs they’ve attended, and how much money they’ve spent on ‘recruitment initiatives’, but where are the workers? Why aren’t they jumping at the chance to work in the NWT?

The fact is healthcare staff all over the NWT are leaving full-time indeterminate jobs to take more precarious positions in the south because their jobs here are inflexible and no longer competitive in earnings.

Applying short-term band-aids like agency nurses costs NWT residents more in taxpayer’s money, and also comes at a cost to those already working in the system. This approach is beating down the already low morale of the employees who have chosen to live and work here.

And we already know that increasing the use of casual and agency workers will not address long-term recruitment or retention issues. It hasn’t been working for the past 20-plus years, so why is that still the plan?

Sadly, we’re seeing this attitude reflected at bargaining tables across the North. Dedicated employees are being treated like they are disposable. In a time where the reality is labour shortages sector-wide, employers are acting like qualified workers are an unlimited resource who should be grateful to simply have a job.

Workers are not disposable, and employers need to wrap their heads around the idea that they need to be competitive if they want to retain workers to maintain services. This is especially important in our public sector, which provides essential programs, services, and care to Northern residents. When the public service suffers, we all feel the effects.

The public sector should be setting the bar for employment standards, not wasting taxpayers’ money on legal fees to fight their employees at the bargaining table. They need to start showing tangible appreciation for the work their employees do through decent wage increases and improved working conditions.

Unions are always ready and willing to continue the heavy lifting in improving wages and working conditions for our public service, which ultimately raises the bar for all workers. But we can’t do it alone. There needs to be a willingness from the employer to take the necessary steps toward actual recruitment and retention.

And all levels of government, even as employers, ultimately answer to the public.

On May 28, the Northern Territories Federation of Labour (NTFL) and the Yukon Federation of Labour launched a pan-territorial campaign to draw attention to the healthcare crisis in the North. This is a great opportunity for members of the public — who use and benefit from public services — to sign on and demand better.