Union alleges N.W.T. government wants right to use private agencies to fill all health-care positions

In an update on negotiations over a new collective agreement for public servants, the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) accused the Northwest Territories government of opening the possibility of contracting out all health-care positions.The allegations from the union came in a news release posted on the UNW website in late March and was first reported by Cabin Radio. The territorial government and the UNW are in the process of negotiating through a mediator to reach a new collective agreement for the over 6,000 N.W.T. public sector workers.Contracted health-care workers are temporary workers who are hired through private, for-profit agencies. They are sometimes used when a health-care facility is short-staffed and unable to fill its positions through direct hires. The allegation posted on the website didn’t have many details, but stated the territorial government was demanding “a Letter of Understanding that would open the door to contracting out all of the GNWT’s 2,100 health-care workers.”Drop the demand, says unionThe letter ended by saying that if the N.W.T. government dropped the demand, the parties can move forward on the agreement.CBC News reached out to the union but in an email Gayla Thunstrom, UNW president, said “as we are going into mediation this week, our focus will remain there, and we are hopeful we will be able to come to an agreement through the mediator’s assistance.”The territory says it currently contracts agency nurses in an effort to prevent health-care units from closing. It’s unclear what other positions could potentially be contracted out, but there are agencies that contract for other roles such as occupational therapists.When asked about the UNW’s allegation, Toyeke Adedipe, a spokesperson for the N.W.T. Finance department, said in an email the territory is engaged in the bargaining process and won’t comment.But she added agency nurses are “a rarely used, exception-based approach to a multifaceted issue” and that they make up 0.5 per cent of the territorial government’s 2,100 health-care workers.Despite the limited usage, the territory paid $5.2 million for agency nurses last year, according to an Open N.W.T. tender for more agency nurses that closed in late March with 17 companies bidding.These are nurses employed by a private agency who are paid significantly more than those working for the territory. Though agency nurses often don’t get things like benefits.The higher pay comes as the country grapples with a health-care worker shortage and various provinces and territories try to bring in more workers.Limited options amid nurse shortageN.W.T. Health Minister Lesa Semmler previously told CBC News that the territory only uses agency nurses to avoid cutting services and that it’s not an ideal choice but its one that has to be made. The union has highlighted the issue in the past. In one news release posted on its website, Thunstrom cites the territory is paying a significant amount for the agency nurses and alleged it is refusing to add better incentives to nurses willing to live and work long term in the territory.But the reasons the agency nurses are allowed to be employed is because of a memorandum of understanding the territory and union initially agreed to in 2004 and then re-established during COVID-19 as the health system struggled.It allowed the territory to hire agency workers for certain positions as a last case scenario. The agreement was scheduled to expire on March 31, 2022, but could be extended by a mutual written agreement.  These positions include registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, laboratory technicians, respiratory therapists and diagnostic imaging technologists. But it does have a section that says those employees will be bound by the same base salary under the pay scale that’s part of the collective agreement.David Maguire, a spokesperson for the N.W.T. health authority, previously told CBC News the territory doesn’t know how much the nurses get paid as it pays the agencies directly for the hourly rates, which range from around $105 to $164 per hour.

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