The unions representing administrative professionals (APs) who work with Nova Scotia Health and the IWK say they are frustrated waiting for the province to go to the table to negotiate a new contract.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s labour relations minister said the province is not dragging its feet to prevent the workers from taking job action.
The 5,000 administrative professionals, represented by CUPE, NSGEU, and Unifor, have been without a contract for three years. Members of the unions voted for a strike mandate back in June after rejecting a tentative agreement with that was reached with the province in April. Had they approved that contract, it would’ve expired Oct. 31.
Bev Strachan is the president of the local with and a CUPE 8920 member and a bargaining committee member at the APs’ table.
Strachan said all of those professionals require some level of post-secondary education to do their jobs, but some of the positions pay as little as $18 per hour. That’s far less than the current living wages in Nova Scotia — $26.50 in Halifax, $25.40 in the Annapolis region, $25.05 in the Southern region, and $22.85 in Cape Breton.
Of those 5,000 administrative professionals, 85% are women.
“We can’t figure out why they won’t come back to the table and won’t commit to giving us the date to be at the table,” Strachan said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner. “We’re trying to make sure they know there’s a lot of value in this work and a labour disruption in this work is not what any of us want.”
‘They are the gatekeepers of access to health care’
Administrative professionals cover a wide range of roles in Nova Scotia’s health care system. Here’s a description of the work they do from the unions’ news release:
They are the first point of contact with patients; manage registrations; control the switchboard and communications; ensure test labels are accurate; assign beds; share lab results with clinical staff; book appointments, transfers and admissions; order and receive supplies; manage payroll; and much more. Without these professionals and their labour, health care doesn’t work, and it’s time the employer and government returned to the table to offer a deal that acknowledges that.
“They are the gatekeepers of access to health care and gatekeepers of all the health information once it’s established,” Strachan said.
Strachan said the unions would like to see the province bargain with them as they have with other bargaining units, including doctors and nurses.
It’s starting to feel a little bit like a respect issue and an equity issue. The fact that the offer that was there isn’t equal to what they’ve done at other bargaining tables to try to help bring those bargaining units along. We’re not seeing those same types of conversations or offers at this table. There was recognition at the nurses’ table that they are not among the highest paid in Atlantic Canada. We have the data that this bargaining unit is also not among the highest paid or in the middle, so we’d like to do something that makes some sort of strides towards improving the economics for this bargaining unit to be more reflective of the education they have and the work they do.
The unions are also working on an essential services agreement, which is required by the Essential Health and Community Service Act before a strike can take place. According to a news release from the unions, “once an essential services plan is in place and the required two-week notice period has elapsed, thousands of health care workers across the province will be in a legal strike position.”
Response from labour relations minister
In post-cabinet scrums on Thursday, reporters asked Labour Relations Minister Allan MacMaster if the government was dragging its feet on preparing the essential services legislation to prevent the administrative workers from taking job action. MacMaster said he rejected that suggestion:
As I have learned since becoming labour relations minister, there are various features that exist, depending on the workplace. Some present an advantage, but they may cause an impact in how a negotiation can be done. In this case, this group retains the right to strike, but because it’s an issue of health and safety of the public, the legislation exists that there has to be a continuation of service for the public. Otherwise, the public is not going to be happy. We’re responsible for the public to get their health care.
So, I would reject that we’re dragging our feet. I hear all kinds of comments of how awful we are from time to time, and that’s just what happens. We can’t control that. We know that those people representing those workers have interests as well, and they’re doing their best to represent the workers. And often times we’re the bad guy. We don’t want to be the bad guy, but we have interests to balance as well, and that includes the general public. Certainly in a case like this where we’re trying to ensure health care remains available to people when they need it.
Michael Gorman at CBC asked MacMaster if it was a coincidence that the most acrimonious negotiations the Houston government has had to date have been with the lowest paid workers.
MacMaster said the government has taken “special measures” for people who are working in jobs that pay less than nurses or doctors.
“We’ve done that because we want them to feel valued. As a government, we’re also an employer, but we know there are other employers out there and we have to accept that people can switch jobs,” MacMaster said.
“We need to keep people interested in the work they’re doing,” MacMaster said. “So, we’re facing all those things when we’re making our decisions and when we’re going to the bargaining table.”
‘Looking to be treated fairly’
On Monday, the unions released ads calling out Premier Tim Houston for lack of respect of administrative professionals. Strachan said the unions are planning a day of action for Monday, Sept. 25. On that day, administrative professionals will be on information pickets at regional hospitals across the province.
Joanne Smith has been a medical transcriptionist at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish for the last 35 years. She’s also the area VP for CUPE Local 8920, and represents hospitals, including St. Martha’s, Strait Richmond Hospital, St. Mary’s in Sherbrooke, Eastern Memorial in Canso, Guysborough Memorial Hospital.
“We’re just looking to be treated fairly and be able to make wage so we don’t have to be out there working a second job to make ends meet,” Smith said.
Smith said she doesn’t have a second job, but many of her colleagues are working two or three jobs “because the wages for APs aren’t great.”
Smith said prior to the creation of Nova Scotia Health, every hospital had its own medical transcription. But now under Nova Scotia Health, medical transcriptionists who retire are replaced by those positions are contracted out to a private company.
“Once we are gone, we’re gone, which sucks because it means rural areas are going to lose more AP support,” Smith said.
Smith said administrative professionals in health care play an important role in keeping the health care system running.
“We are in every aspect. From the minute you come through that door in any hospital, we’re going to be looking after you one way or another. We don’t do hands-on care, but everything else is done by us. In my job, if you were to come into the hospital, and you went to the OR, it’s my job to process that OR once the doctor dictates it.”
Smith said the unions’ lead negotiator has been “trying desperately” to get their employer back to the table, but “we’re not there yet.”
“We’re still very, very hopeful it will happen soon because this contract that we’re trying to negotiate, if we do negotiate it, is scheduled to end on Oct. 31,” Smith said.
Smith said morale amongst her administrative colleagues at St. Martha’s and other regional hospitals is getting better.
“We’re moving at a pace that’s much quicker right now, trying to get back to the table. There are things we’re trying to do and people are happy that they are involved more and doing more,” Smith said.
“I wish they would call us back and we could get on with our lives at a wage that we can afford to get on with our lives with.”