Nova Scotia braces for nurses strike but passage of essential services law nears

Picket lines are expected to spring up outside most Halifax-area hospitals Thursday as 2,400 unionized nurses seeking higher staffing levels plan to stage a strike.

HALIFAX — Picket lines are expected to spring up outside most Halifax-area hospitals Thursday as 2,400 unionized nurses seeking higher staffing levels plan to stage a strike.

But with the provincial government poised to pass essential services legislation, the nurses could be back to work as early as Friday.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, has said the union wants to increase staff levels to ensure patient safety. The Capital District Health Authority, the nurses’ employer, has responded by saying the demand for nurse-to-patient ratios won’t work because such a tool is too inflexible.

The impact of a strike — even a short one — would stretch beyond the city because the affected health institutions in Halifax serve as regional health centres for the province and the Maritime region.

“Every day that we don’t have our nurses here is a concern for us, every hour that we don’t have our nurses here,” Capital Health CEO Chris Power told a news conference Wednesday. “If we didn’t need them, they wouldn’t be here. So this is a huge concern for us and for the safety of our patients.”

Power said the labour unrest has made for a tough work environment.

“This is a difficult time for everybody, not just for nurses who are poised to strike tomorrow, but all staff,” she said.

“Tensions are high. However, I will say that as always, we are proud of the professionalism that despite the feelings of conflict and the tensions that are in the workplace, staff show up and in a very professional manner and work to look after our patients.”

Some patients have already been transferred to other health districts in the province. And last week, Prince Edward Island began moving some patients back to their home province as Capital Health started cancelling elective procedures in anticipation of a strike.

The union has agreed to maintain staffing levels for emergency rooms and units offering dialysis services, cancer care and intensive care.

A spokesman for the union said nurses were briefed Wednesday about the government’s efforts to pass the essential services legislation.

On Tuesday, several nurses told the legislature’s law amendments committee how chronic staff shortages have led to unsafe conditions in Halifax-area hospitals.

The government introduced its essential services legislation late Monday, prompting an illegal walkout the next day by a few hundred nurses. The health authority said the walkout forced the cancellation of dozens of surgeries.

Later in the day, the union advised its members to obey a Nova Scotia Labour Board ruling that ordered them back to work.

Labour Minister Kelly Regan has said Nova Scotia is the only province in Canada without some sort of essential services legislation for its nurses.

The Liberal government’s proposed legislation would require unions and employers throughout the health-care sector to have an essential services agreement in place before a strike or lockout could start.

Bill 37 would also apply to paramedics, 911 operators, hospital employees and people who work in homes for seniors, youth and people with disabilities. In all, about 35,000 to 40,000 workers would be covered by the law.

Premier Stephen McNeil has said the new law is needed because there have been three labour disruptions in the health-care sector within seven months.

The legislation would also allow parties to request conciliation or mediation to help negotiate an essential services agreement. If they can’t agree, either party could apply to the Nova Scotia Labour Board.

The nurses primarily work at four places in the Halifax area: the QEII Health Sciences Centre, Nova Scotia Hospital, East Coast Forensic Hospital and Public Health Services.

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