Some Alberta hospitals hit by illegal strikes by support staffers

Hospital officials cancelled surgeries and struggled to deliver meals to patients Thursday after hundreds of support workers illegally walked off the job at hospitals across Alberta.

EDMONTON — Hospital officials cancelled surgeries and struggled to deliver meals to patients Thursday after hundreds of support workers illegally walked off the job at hospitals across Alberta.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said an early morning walkout by staff at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital caught fire on Twitter and other social media.

By mid-afternoon, staff at more than a dozen facilities, including some in Edmonton and Calgary, had left their posts to protest what they called an insulting contract offer.

“I’ve been there for 40 years and I still make under $20 an hour,” said Al Pelletier, a custodian at the Royal Alexandra.

“We’re not getting anywhere with Alberta Health Services. They don’t respect us. They tell us we’re an important part of health care, but yet they treat us like slaves.”

The union was set to begin airing TV spots Friday to highlight concerns. The sticking point is contract talks.

The union walked away from mediated talks after Alberta Health Services tabled an offer of a two per cent lump-sum payment for 2011, a two per cent increase for 2012 and a cost of living increase for 2013.

Union spokesman Mark Wells said that was “the spark in the tinder box” because the offer was worse than the one the workers had already rejected.

Alberta Health Services says the deal was different but not inferior.

It also said it was dealing with problems that continued to mushroom throughout the day as more workers walked out.

Support staff include those who deliver meals, clean operating rooms, sterilize instruments, handle clerical duties and provide security.

Almost 70 elected surgeries had been cancelled by mid-afternoon.

“There’s no notice given (for the cancellations), no ability to prepare people ahead of time, and that does create unnecessary anxiety on behalf of our patients which we’re doing our best to alleviate,” said Chris Mazurkewich, chief operating officer for Alberta Health Services.

The agency applied to the labour relations board for an injunction to get staff back to work. A decision was expected later Thursday.