N.B. health-care workers turned away after back-to-work order: union

·3 min read

Several striking New Brunswick health-care sector employees were turned away from their jobs hours after the province issued an emergency order sending them back to work, the union representing the civil servants said Saturday.

Local presidents within CUPE New Brunswick held an afternoon press conference to discuss the fallout after the provincial government announced it was calling health-care employees back to work. That order came on Friday, a week after 22,000 CUPE members across the province walked off the job in response to an ongoing labour dispute with the province.

CUPE Local 1252 President Norma Robinson told reporters the back-to-work order seems to have caused “chaos” within the health-care system.

"It was not clear who was to report to work and now this morning we're getting reports that there are people that were not to report to work because that's what they're being told at the door," she said, adding that some members were told they were still on strike scheduling.

The union is now calling on the government to explain the parameters of the order, Robinson added.

The provincial government issued an emergency order forcing striking health-care workers to go back on the job as of midnight in an attempt to help stabilize the system that’s been overburdened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a release issued Friday, officials said more than 11,800 appointments, procedures and surgeries have been cancelled since Nov. 1 and the health-care system is dealing with delays in processing laboratory test results.

But Robinson said anecdotes from health-care employees who are still currently working tell a different story.

"We've had reports from people on the inside of the health-care facilities that it is not as bad as what was reported by the government," she said.

The province says the order covers all workers in CUPE 1252, who work directly in the healthcare system, as well as workers in CUPE 1190 and CUPE 1251 who work in the health services supply chain and laundry and linen services. It does not pertain to the rest of the CUPE members who went on strike last week, a group that includes employees in the corrections and education sectors among others.

The province issued a news release later on Friday, saying anyone who fails to report to work risks being fined between $480 and $20,400 per day. CUPE itself has been threatened with a minimum fine of $100,000 for each day that a worker doesn't comply with the order.

Steve Drost, president of CUPE New Brunswick, said the government has not been in contact with the union since the order was enacted.

Salaries have been the central issue at the heart of the ongoing labour dispute.

The province is offering a wage increase of two per cent per year for five years, as well as a 25-cent-per-hour increase each year. It also proposed pension changes for two locals.

The union, however, said it countered with a pay raise of two per cent per year over five years, as well as an extra 25-cent-per-hour raise for the first three years, followed by a 50-cent increase per hour in the final two years. The counter-proposal also rejected the prospective pension changes.

Drost called the order and the government's offer "outrageous."

"It's simply a tool to interfere with these members legal rights and to be used as punishment against these workers because they understand their value and they've finally decided to stand up," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press

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