Alberta Health Services invokes emergency work rules for nurses as COVID hospitalizations rise

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Nurses and supporters rally in front of the Royal Alexandra hospital in Edmonton earlier this month as nurses hold an information picket against cutbacks by the Alberta government. Alberta Health Services notified the United Nurses of Alberta Friday that it will be invoking a clause in their collective agreement that allows AHS to impose longer work days. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Nurses and supporters rally in front of the Royal Alexandra hospital in Edmonton earlier this month as nurses hold an information picket against cutbacks by the Alberta government. Alberta Health Services notified the United Nurses of Alberta Friday that it will be invoking a clause in their collective agreement that allows AHS to impose longer work days. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Alberta's nurses may soon be forced to work mandatory overtime and cancel holidays in response to a chronic staffing problem worsened by surging COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Alberta Health Services notified the United Nurses of Alberta in an email Friday that it was invoking a clause in their collective agreement that allows AHS, in an unforeseen emergency, to impose longer work days and direct nurses to other hospitals in order to address staffing gaps.

In an email, David Harrigan, the union's director of labour relations, told an AHS official this situation doesn't meet the definition of an emergency order under the contract.

"An emergency is an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action," Harrigan wrote.

"With the exception of [Chief Medical Officer of Health] Dr. [Deena] Hinshaw, every medical professional in the province foresaw this and UNA joined in many protests intended to pressure AHS and the government to take reasonable remedial steps," Harrigan said.

While Harrigan acknowledged nurses would abide by the emergency order, "we will be filing a grievance and seeking damages."

Emergency terms used 'when really necessary': AHS

AHS told the union the province's entire health-care system was under additional pressure, especially in Edmonton and southern Alberta.

"While previous redeployment efforts largely focused on the COVID‐specific services such as contact tracing, Health Link and vaccinations, these efforts will now need to be utilized in other areas of the organization that are feeling pressure due to increasing occupancy, acuity and staff absences," AHS said in the email to UNA.

"In the next week, we will be looking at supporting staffing in the ICUs [intensive care units], emergency departments and other units that are experiencing significant staffing issues through further redeployments, as well as, including but not limited to mandating overtime and potentially cancelling vacations."

In a statement, an AHS spokesperson said the emergency terms of the collective agreement previously have been used at times "when really necessary throughout the pandemic.

"We are doing all we can to avoid the use of mandatory overtime or cancelling of pre-approved vacation time."

In an interview, Harrigan said nurses aren't surprised by the latest staffing shortage. He said everyone knew there would be a fourth wave of COVID if the province lifted restrictions.

"What they are upset about is the fact that it is being minimized by both AHS and the government who were saying to the public, 'Everything is fine. This is just a summer vacation issue.' And in fact, everything is not fine."

Harrigan said that, at the same time AHS is forcing nurses to work mandatory overtime and cancel holidays, they are in the midst of negotiations in which AHS is seeking to roll back their wages.

"It is just like a kick to the gut for the people working in the system where there is no recognition of what they're going through."

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