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Nursing hopes of a contract boost

Rob Shaw: As BC’s nurses enter contract talks with the province, they have never been in a stronger negotiating position.

Hundreds of thousands of BC’s public sector workers will be angling for a raise during contract talks this year, but perhaps none have a more persuasive case than nurses.

Labour Minister Harry Bains gave a glimpse this week into the pandemic’s impact on nurses who’ve been on the front lines of the healthcare system, facing a crushing workload, immense pressure, dangerous working conditions and a staffing shortage that was made worse by COVID-19.

The number of nurses making mental health claims with WorkSafeBC rose 58 per cent over the last two years, to 784 during the height of the pandemic in 2021.

“Yes, it is a concern to me, a concern to nurses themselves, for sure, and then also a concern to the WCB,” said Bains.

“We brought in mental disorder presumption for nurses in 2020. Also on that list are nurse's aides, to cover them as well, give them the same presumption. The WCB, the board, is also working on strategies on how to help them deal with the mental health disorders that are creating these claims and making those nurses sick — to work with them. How do we minimize the risks so that we can deal with this issue?”

One way would be a hefty pay raise for nurses, better working conditions, plus money set aside by the province to improve recruitment and a persistent nursing shortage.

That’s undoubtedly part of the ask by the BC Nurses Union as it bargains with the province.

It has also cited staff shortages in intensive care units, and an internal survey that shows 91 per cent of nurses aged 20 to 29 suffered a worsening of their mental health during the pandemic – the youngest members of the profession whom the entire healthcare system is counting on to stay with their jobs through their careers.

But unions typically find themselves constrained by whatever “bargaining mandate” the government sets in advance, which caps out potential pay raises and severely restricts what can actually be negotiated.

Nobody is quite sure yet what this year’s mandate might be. It was 2 per cent during the last contract in 2019, tied to GDP growth in 2014, tied to “productivity increases in existing budgets” in 2012 and zero in 2010.

Nurses though, have a persuasive argument they should get special treatment this time. They kept overwhelmed hospitals, health care sites and testing facilities running during an extraordinary time of sickness and vaccination – all while putting up with additional abuse from some frustrated patients and anti-vaxxers.

“Thousands of workers became sick themselves trying to help us to go through the worst time during COVID,” said Bains. “They risked their health and safety along with their families. They came to work so that we were protected.”

Alberta is also looking to poach BC’s nurses away, with a new contract signed in January that offers a 4.25 per cent pay bump, an extra one percent lump sum payment in recognition of the contributions of nurses during the pandemic, millions in recruitment and retention strategies, and other financial incentives.

BC’s collective bargaining is an enormous task – $37 billion in salaries for more than 490,000 public sector workers, including doctors, teachers, transit drivers, social workers, direct government employees, correctional staff and more. They’ll all have their own stories of stress and overwork due to the pandemic. And they are all valid.

Still, nurses should lead the pack if the government intends to hand out special deals. They took the brunt of the public health crisis like no other sector. They’ve never been in a stronger position to bargain.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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