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Nurses union slams health minister for blaming emergency room woes on staff vacations

United Nurses of Alberta says problems caused by government nurse cutbacks
BC Nurses’ Union President Christine Sorensen is urging the province to address the violence nurses are facing at work as well as a staffing shortage that’s leading to widespread burnout amid the COVID-19 pandeic. (Black Press Media files)

United Nurses of Alberta is slamming Health Minister Tyler Shandro, accusing him of blaming emergency department closures and reduced hours on health staff vacations.

“Alberta Health Services has indicated clearly that unfilled vacancies for registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and licensed practical nurses are the cause of bed closings and reduced emergency room coverage in rural hospitals,” says the UNA.

The union says Shandro responded to a question in the legislature about the closings and diminished access to emergency departments by blaming vacations taken by nurses and other front-line health care workers.

“AHS has never suggested to us that vacations are the problem,” said UNA president Heather Smith. “It’s offensive to suggest nurses are responsible for these problems by taking desperately needed vacations.

“Obviously, if the system can’t operate when nurses and other health care workers take vacations, Alberta Health Services needs to hire more nurses and health care workers instead of planning to lay them off.”

In addition, Smith said, “since November of 2019 the message to nurses from this government has been clear that they are not needed or wanted here. So the government has been creating this problem. They are driving nurses out of this province.”

Smith noted that health care employers have the power to cancel vacations in emergency situations like those in Boyle, Edson, St. Paul, Elk Point, Westlock, Rocky Mountain House, Fairview and Galahad that were mentioned in the Legislature.

A June 4 memorandum sent by AHS management to physicians and staff regarding the temporary 30-per-cent closing of 10 acute care beds in St. Paul states that the problem is “due to a high number of registered nurse (RN) and LPN (licensed practical nurse) vacancies at the facility.”

“I am not aware of AHS ever saying vacations are the cause of these problems,” Smith said.

Responding to a question by NDP health critic David Shepherd, who made reference to the government’s failure to keep rural hospitals and health centres staffed, Shandro accused the opposition of hypocrisy, and then said “they know that it’s more difficult in the summer months, when people take vacations.”

Shepherd said the minister still plans to fire 11,000 front-line workers and more than 700 nurses the moment the pandemic is over.

Despite the delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, AHS has made it clear to UNA in writing on several occasions that it intends to proceed, on the instructions of the government, with the elimination of 500 full-time-equivalent positions it disclosed to the union in 2019 and 2020.

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Paul Cowley

About the Author: Paul Cowley

Paul grew up in Brampton, Ont. and began his journalism career in 1990 at the Alaska Highway News in Fort. St. John, B.C.
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