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.”
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].”
“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.”
‘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.”