Wednesday, 21 Aug 2019

New Brunswick nursing home workers fire back after province says negotiations at impasse

The president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions is firing back after a news release from Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard said contract talks were at an “impasse.”

Sharon Teare waited in the lobby of the New Brunswick Legislature for most of the day Wednesday, hoping to catch the eye of Shephard or premier Blaine Higgs.

When Higgs arrived to speak to reporters just after 3 p.m. Teare yelled a loud “No!” after the premier said talks fell apart Tuesday evening when a union representative said, “We’re done.”

Teare approached the premier, yelling, “We did not say we were done,” and “Listen to the workers who care for the people,” before Higgs turned and left the room.

“We left that meeting with an understanding that they were going to go away and explore some options,” Teare told reporters after the premier’s exit.

“The other appointed negotiator to the table said in order to do that they may need a little bit of time so we wouldn’t be meeting today. [How] is that where talks broke off?”

According to Teare, union representatives were on a dinner break after what they considered to be a productive day of negotiations when they heard that a statement had been issued from Dorothy Shephard saying talks had broken down.

“Discussions throughout the talks have been respectful and collegial,” reads the statement.

“[B]ut unfortunately this afternoon, we reached an impasse. Although we are open to returning to the table to talk, no further negotiations are scheduled at this time.”

Teare says that the timing of the statement means that the government is not negotiating in good faith.

“They are trying to bargain with our members in the media, but I’m going to tell you, our workers are front line workers who have and will continue to support their team because they know that this team represents them with all heart, trust and integrity,” she said.

New Brunswick’s nursing home workers have been without a contract since 2016 and early this year voted to go on strike.

After a brief court battle the New Brunswick Court of Appeals issued a stay of a previous labour board ruling that gave nursing home workers the right to strike, effectively ending the possibility of a strike.

Teare admits that the two sides were still far apart Tuesday when talks ended, but was encouraged that both sides were able to sit down after several weeks of bad blood, culminating in an altercation inside the main Social Development office during a union sit in.

For his part, Premier Higgs insists that any deal reached between the two sides must be one that the taxpayers of New Brunswick can afford.

“Unless we’re going to raise taxes dramatically to pay for this, we have to find money in the system because I don’t think people are prepared to just keep paying more. We have to do better,” he told reporters during a second scrum.

Higgs estimates that the current ask from the union, a three per cent raise for the next few years followed by binding arbitration, would cost about $6,000 to $7,000 per bed. He says the government’s current offer is one per cent per year for three years, increasing to two per cent for the next two.

One proposal to find that money is to find a way to reduce the number of sick days taken by nursing home staff. According to the premier, the average number of sicks days for a worker is anywhere from 14 to 16 a year.

Finding out what’s driving those numbers so conditions can be improved, he says, is central to the government’s current offer.

“What is the cause for the sick time and the high rates of incidents and accidents, and lets figure that out and let’s fix it, rather than just try to, say, ignore it,” he said.

But Teare says sick days need to be left alone for the safety of both staff and patients.

“When you talk about sick time in long term care you think half of us want to be out sick? No we don’t. You have to be physically, emotionally and mentally able to care for our residents,” she said.

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