Alberta Health Services has taken a proposed three-per-cent wage rollback off the table in its talks with the United Nurses of Alberta.
The new proposal offers nurses three years with no salary increases followed by two years with a one per cent increase.
The offer arrived two weeks before the start of formal mediation, during a period where Alberta's hospitals and intensive care units are struggling with staffing shortages and employee burnout during the surging fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This new proposal acknowledges the hard work and dedication of Alberta's nurses while respecting the tough fiscal situation the province is in," Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a written statement.
However, an official from the UNA said Toews's remarks were "absolutely false."
AHS still wants an end to two annual lump-sum payments, which amounts to a two-per-cent cut in salary, said David Harrigan, the UNA's director of labour relations.
"Minister Toews issued a statement saying they're proposing a wage freeze for the first three years. That's just absolutely false," Harrigan said.
"it's not helpful when he makes misstatements and it just confuses the public and our members."
Harrigan said the AHS chief negotiator reached out to him over the long weekend after receiving a new mandate from the government.
"We're not sure what exactly prompted it," Harrigan said.
"It seemed like they started to realize how much of a crisis they are really in. ...They can't attract staff and they can't retain staff."
While AHS has dropped many proposed changes to how nurses are scheduled and paid overtime, Harrigan is concerned the health authority wants to end scheduling provisions that have guaranteed nurses two full calendar days of rest each week.
In his written statement, Toews said UNA members are the only nurses in Canada who receive two annual lump-sum payments under their contract.
The start of formal mediation marks a new chapter in the year-long talks to reach a new five-year collective agreement.
The mediator has 14 days to get both sides to reach an agreement. If that occurs, a strike or lockout can occur after a two-week cooling-off period.
UNA and AHS have already settled the essential services agreement that sets minimum staffing levels in the case of a strike or lockout.
AHS is now admitting it is reaching out to staffing agencies to hire casual nurses. The top rate for an Alberta nurse is $48 an hour. The contract nurses earn an hourly wage of $75.
Two weeks ago, the health authority brought new rules which would force nurses to work mandatory overtime or cancel their vacation.