March 31, 2009
FREDERICTON (CNB) - The Government of New Brunswick has introduced legislation to ensure seniors' safety and care are not put at risk in the event of union job action in the nursing home sector.
Tabled in the legislative assembly today by Social Development Minister Mary Schryer, the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act would introduce essential services designation for nursing home care and support workers.
As with hospitals, nursing homes deliver a specialized level of care. Yet nursing home care and support workers are not currently designated as an essential service in New Brunswick. In a legal strike situation, that would mean a significant majority of nursing home care and support workers could walk off the job, putting nursing home residents at risk within a very short period of time.
"We're doing this for nursing home residents, the most fragile seniors in our province," Schryer said. "It's about minimizing risk; about doing everything we can to avoid having residents' care and safety jeopardized while the New Brunswick Nursing Home Association works with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to reach an agreement."
While these measures have been under consideration for some time, the bill's timely introduction was a priority for government this week as the New Brunswick Nursing Home Association and CUPE, through the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, work to avoid a labour dispute.
"The legislation we've introduced today preserves unions' right to bargain," Schryer said. "It is about protecting the care and safety of seniors in nursing homes, and recognizing the critical nature of the service nursing home care and support workers provide."
In recognition of current fiscal realities and to minimize public sector job loss, the province's recent budget introduced a mandatory two-year wage freeze for all government employees. The wage freeze was extended to include the nursing home sector.
The government agreed to honour public sector union contracts, provided each union accepted a two-year wage free to take effect at the end of its existing agreement.
The New Brunswick Nurses Union and the New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees, two of three unions in the sector, have reached an agreement with the New Brunswick Nursing Home Association. These groups accepted a two-year wage freeze to take effect at the end of their existing agreements.
An offer was made to CUPE, which included wage increases totalling 19 per cent over four years, including general economic increases and adjustments for pay equity. This offer included a wage freeze to take effect at the end of the four-year agreement. This offer was rejected.
"In today's economy, we believe the offer made by the Nursing Home Association to CUPE was eminently fair and reasonable," said Minister of State for Seniors Brian Kenny. "We were extremely disappointed to learn it had been rejected."
The offer included an average wage increase of 19 per cent over four years, and it included general economic increases and adjustments for pay equity. This offer has now expired.
Kenny reiterated that he was pleased that two of the three unions in the nursing home sector accepted the wage freeze and reached agreements.
"These groups responded to our call to work with government during challenging fiscal times," he said.
While government is not the employer, through the Nursing Home Association, it provides the vast majority of funding that nursing homes require to sustain their operations.
Schryer said, "While we remain hopeful the two parties will find common ground and reach an agreement, as a government we are committed to doing what is right and what is required to ensure residents are protected, and that they receive the quality, consistent care they need in nursing homes."
The legislation would apply to an estimated 3,125 unionized nursing home care and support workers. The majority of nursing home care and support workers are licensed practical nurses and resident attendants who provide personal care services to nursing home residents.
MEDIA CONTACTS: Shannon Hagerman, communications, Department of Social Development, 506-444-2416.