Natasha Beals says it’s time Nova Scotia’s health administration workers could make ends meet without going to food banks.
“I do not earn even close to the amount I need,” said Beals, one of several hundred health administration workers rallying in front of the Dickson Building of the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax over the lunch hour Monday.
“I am living paycheque to paycheque and a lot of the times I actually reach out to my parents for help, who are not very well off either, but I am very fortunate,” said Beals, who is a single parent of a 15-year-old son and has worked for the Nova Scotia Health Authority for more than a decade.
“I hear that all the time, especially with our members, that they need to reach out and get financial help. We have members who hold three positions in Nova Scotia Health and are still going to the food bank. They could have a full-time, a part-time, which could be evening clinics, and then they get casual work on the side when they are not working.”
Amid the energetic sounds of the union protest band and the cluster of health admin workers wearing red union T-shirts and wielding signs with messages about a living wage and respect for workers along the University Avenue sidewalks, Beals said “we need a good pay increase to keep us afloat.”
Members of the 5,000-plus health administration employees in Nova Scotia, who are represented by three different unions, were rallying by the thousands at 11 facilities across the province Monday in support of a contract that they have been working without for nearly three years.
The administration workers, employed by Nova Scotia Health and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, are the first point of contact with patients at Nova Scotia’s hospitals and health-care clinics. They manage registrations, control the switchboard and communications, ensure test labels are accurate, assign beds, share lab results with clinical staff, book appointments, transfers and admissions, order and receive supplies and manage payroll.
Call for respect
Yet, Sandra Mullen, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said the province’s offer in April was a three-year deal with pay increases of 1.5, 1.5 and three per cent in a contract that would actually expire at the end of next month. The province added the offer of a 0.5 per cent hike at the expiration of the contract.
Mullen said the services provided in hospitals and health-care clinics across the province cannot function without health admin professionals.
“They are a very important part of the health-care team and they need to be respected that way,” said Mullen, whose union represents 3,800 of the province’s health admin workers, 85 per cent of whom she says are female, many of them working two jobs just to make ends meet.
“The wages here can be as low as $18 an hour,” Mullen said. “You put two or three per cent on $18 an hour, that’s not a big adjustment when inflation has been through the roof.”
Mullen and the leaders of the other two unions who represent the workers – Canadian Union of Public Employees and Unifor – say that the pay increase offered is actually a reduction when inflation is factored in.
The workers firmly rejected that contract offer in April and gave their unions, who bargain together in the Council of Unions – a strong strike mandate in June.
Despite having that strike mandate, the admin workers cannot strike because provincial legislation prohibits them from job action until an essential services agreement is worked out with the province.
“We truly believe that process was established to benefit the employer,” Mullen said of the essential services agreement.
“We know that the staffing levels adjust depending on, for example, a holiday. We look at what are those minimal staffing areas. We know there are certain areas we’re not going to touch – we would never take folks out of the ER or the cancer unit. But there are folks working throughout this system that we believe can be off work and on strike.”
Negotiations between the province and the Council of Unions were to continue Monday afternoon, and Mullen said the unions have been called back to the contract negotiating table for Oct. 11.
Mullen said the unions have no idea if the employers have sweetened the pot.
“We’re concerned about getting our information out there and getting the interests of this group known and the value and the importance of the work that they do,” Mullen said. “It’s about making sure that when they get back to the table that they’ve been heard and they get a reasonable contract. We’re not going to bring back an agreement that isn’t suitable.”
A spokesperson for the provincial government said Thursday that the work of everyone in the health-care system is valued, including health administrative professionals.
“The province is committed to open, honest, and meaningful collective bargaining with public sector unions, and we are hopeful the employers and Council of Unions can reach an agreement without any disruption to services,” the spokesperson said.
Beals, who worked much of her time at Nova Scotia Health in patient care in the anatomical pathology section ensuring patient specimens were rushed to destinations for prompt diagnoses, said the employers could negotiate a five-year deal to extend past Oct. 31, as has been done with other health-care contracts.
“We would love a 10-plus per cent increase over those years,” she said. “Nobody realizes that we care as much for the patients as nurses, as much as physicians. We leave crying sometimes, because we are so stressed, so overworked and yet way underpaid. We need a good pay increase to show that we are worth it and these hospitals would not run without clerical and admin professionals.”