The Saskatchewan government won't commit to exempting northern social workers from a 3.5 per cent proposed public sector pay cut.
In question period Thursday, MLAs were asked about whether social workers might be excluded from a yet-to-be-approved pay cut and from taking unpaid days off, due to the ongoing crisis situation in the north.
Minister of Social Services Tina Beaudry-Mellor didn't commit to exempting northern workers, saying the decisions will be made at the bargaining table.
"We want to see where the negotiations go with the unions and we want the ability for our employer to make those determinations at the bargaining table," Beaudry-Mellor said.
But Nicole Rancourt, the NDP social services critic, said the minister should take a stance on the issue because of the social pressures faced by the north right now, particularly several suicides in recent months.
"We need to prioritize paying our professional workers the appropriate wages that they need to be paid and providing maybe even more social workers there regarding the high level of workload they have," Rancourt said.
Beaudry-Mellor said it's the mandate of the ministry to deliver child and family services and that she intends to fulfill that mandate.
Recruitment efforts and concerns
The government said 15 "critical" front-line Child and Family Programs positions have been staffed in the north since Jan. 1, with another 12 workers being recruited now.
Beaudry-Mellor said with the latest positions filled, the ministry is about half-way there.
Vacancies have been caused by a "whole bunch" of maternity leaves, according to Beaudry-Mellor, aside from the usual struggles to fill positions in the north.
The government said it is ramping up recruitment efforts at university social work programs in the province, as well as with Indigenous social work programs.
Rancourt said she's concerned that forcing social workers to take unpaid days off would make it harder for them to maintain their workload, and make it harder to woo people to work in the north.
"They're having a hard time keeping up with workloads as it is, so if they're going to be forcing them to take more days off without pay, it's going to be tougher to recruit them," Rancourt said.
Beaudry-Mellor agreed that cuts may have an impact on recruitment efforts.
"That will be a challenge that we will have to overcome. It's something that we're going to have to work towards as a ministry," Beaudry-Mellor said.
Rancourt said her main focus is making sure the north and Prince Albert, which she represents as an MLA, don't lose more services.
"I think we need to realize how valuable these workers are and we need to realize how much we've been ignoring the north for so long," Rancourt said.