A group of workers wearing red shirts and bearing signs that say "We deserve a living wage" and "Tim Houston, why don't you respect our work" chant during a rally outside the VG.
Workers outside the Dickson entrance to the VG in Halifax during the health admin day of action protest in Halifax on Sept. 25, 2023. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

Cheering, blowing whistles, and raising placards, a large crowd of health care administrative professionals and supporters gathered outside the Victoria General (VG) hospital site on Monday to demand better pay.

We’re some of the lowest paid in health care along with housekeeping, dietary, all the things that a hospital can’t run without. But we’re being offered a pittance,” Judi Carman, a protesting health care administrative professional who works at the VG, said in an interview.  

“Basically what it does is puts you up into a different tax bracket and you lose money. If you’re making $40,000 a year and they offer you 1%, do the math. That’s $400 amortized over 12 months. Then take taxes off of it. It’s a $10 raise. I’m worth more than that.”

Workers mostly wearing red shirts and bearing signs that say things like "Health care needs us," and "$3 in 11 years doesn't pay the bills" stand outside the Dickson entrance at the VG site of the QEII Health Sciences Centre.
Workers outside the Dickson entrance to the VG in Halifax during the health admin day of action protest in Halifax on Sept. 25, 2023. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

The health care administrative professionals protesting in Halifax were among those at 11 hospital sites throughout the province who joined Monday’s lunch-hour day of action protest pickets. 

The 5,000 health care administrative professionals working in Nova Scotia’s hospitals and in community care settings have been without a contract for almost three years. Represented by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), CUPE, and UNIFOR, they rejected a tentative agreement reached with the province in April. Then in June, union members voted in favour of striking. 

‘Vital part of the health care system’

The unions say Nova Scotia’s health care administrative professionals are among the lowest paid in Atlantic Canada. About 85% of them are women.

“I tried to come up with something that could be done in that hospital without them, and you cannot even go to a vending machine without them paying the rent on that vending machine,” NSGEU president Sandra Mullen told the Halifax Examiner in an interview during the protest. 

“So it’s pretty much everything from the minute you go in that door to be invited for an appointment to process and send your results of bloodwork and so on to the folks who need it. There is nothing that can be done for anyone without our admin professionals doing that work. [They’re a] vital part of the health care [system].” 

As reported last week, the unions were asking the province to return to the bargaining table. Unions have since been called back to the bargaining table for Oct. 11.

“This group is not going to automatically accept an offer. It has to be reasonable,” Mullen said. 

“The bargaining team recommended an agreement back in the spring, knowing it would end on Oct. 31. And it was clearly rejected. So these folks are standing up for what they feel they deserve in these inflationary times.”

A smiling woman with short brown hair and glasses dressed in red with a black NSGEU vest stands in front of her union members protesting with signs and flags.
NSGEU President Sandra Mullen at the health admin day of action protest in Halifax on Sept. 25, 2023. Credit: Yvette d'Entremont

‘Can’t access services without them’

The NSGEU has described the previous offer as amounting to a wage decrease. The union represents about 3,700 health care administrative professionals, most of whom are based in the Halifax region. 

Mullen said in addition to not having had an economic adjustment since 2019, they’re among the lowest paid in the system. In addition, despite the fact most of the jobs require post-secondary training, Mullen said some are starting at $18 an hour.

“We’ve been through COVID. We’ve seen the inflation, the price of fuel, and all of those costs increasing,” Mullen said. “And they have been doing the work to ensure that this operation…carries on. When you talk 3% and 2% increases on low-wage positions, that is not enough.”

Since 2019, Mullen said inflation and a worsening housing crisis have significantly impacted many Nova Scotians, including these workers. She said the recently released living wage report — which pegs a current living wage in Halifax at $26.50 — demonstrates that it takes far more than $18 an hour to make ends meet.  

“You don’t have to go far to see what’s happening with housing here,” Mullen said. “So how do you come to these jobs with the wage that they’ve been offered and with the cost of living here in Halifax?”

On Monday morning, NSGEU opened its e-action campaign. That initiative encourages public submissions of support for health care administrative professionals. Mullen said within 20 minutes, they’d received 60 responses from the public. Within an hour, that number had jumped to 120. 

“I do believe that the public supports the work that these folks do,” Mullen said. “They cannot access services without the work of the admin professionals. Plain and simple.”

‘If it wasn’t for the patients, we wouldn’t be here’

Charmaine Jeffrey has been a health care administrative professional for 24 years. An admissions assistant at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre, Jeffrey said she’s confident the public is behind them. 

I honestly think the public will support us, because most of the public see us when they come in for appointments, for surgeries,” Jeffrey said in an interview. “Some of the patients even know me from years coming in. I think they really know how hard we work and what our job is.”

While she believes patients and the general public are behind them, Jeffrey said she and many of her colleagues are feeling underappreciated and undervalued by the provincial government. In addition to demanding and receiving better wages, she said they’re hoping for some recognition of the important role they play. 

“We’re here for patient care. So although we’re being paid terrible wages, we’re doing it for the patients,” Jeffrey said. “If it wasn’t for the patients, we would not be here.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. The average person doesn’t support their ask because the average person doesn’t support tax hikes.

    The public sector enjoyed a pay premium for decades in this province. Jobs that require post-secondary education I do sympathize with a bit more, but NS needs to reduce, not increase, it’s cost of running the public service and get take care of it’s debts.

  2. “Basically what it does is puts you up into a different tax bracket and you lose money.”

    Oh boy. I hope that the union has people who understand money doing the bargaining more so than the people they have working the picket line.

  3. The living wage equals approximately $55,000 / year. Give or take a bit. Minimum wage of $15 / hour gives about $32,000 / year. Again, give or take a bit. $40,000 is on the low part of scale and is not that much better than minimum wage. People can’t survive on $40,000 / year which is the $18 / hour +/-. It’s time for these people to get paid a decent wage. The Premier is all a flutter to fix health care – a good first step is to take care of these people, just as he did (a start anyway) with the CCAs. This is shameful of the government actually.

  4. You may deserve what you are asking for but comments like “If you’re making $40,000 a year” will not help your cause. Factor in the one of the best medical plans plus pension plans – you may not be that bad off.
    If you expect help from this government don’t hold your breath.
    All contracts with the province as employer that expire after 6 months should be settled by binding arbitration allowing it to go so long is immortal and unethical but it is the government you are dealing with. If you feel that strongly stop talking and strike, as this government will only act when you embarrass them into action. Your serve Teflon Tim!

    1. The problem is the medical plan and the pension plan can’t be traded for rent and groceries. These workers earn their pay and we will be in bad way if they take strike action.