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Alberta government's claimed savings from health-care cuts don't add up

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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro gives a press conference on October 8, 2020. Image: Tyler Shandro/Screenshot of Twitter video

Math, apparently, remains hard.

Except, perhaps, calculus of a political sort.

On its face, Health Minister Tyler Shandro's claim that firing 11,000 low-paid public sector health-care employees will save about $600 million makes little sense.

Others have done the same calculation and come up with similar results, but it is a matter of simple arithmetic that if we divide $600 million by 11,000 workers, we'll see a ballpark "cost saving" of roughly $54,500 per employee.

A look at the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees' health-care general support services collective agreement shows the wages of the workers who are likely to be affected by these changes in black and white.

Annual pay for a full-time lab assistant, one of the job categories targeted for layoff and privatization by the United Conservative Party government would work out to about $54,800 under the current AUPE contract. Annual pay for many food service and laundry workers is now about $38,700.

So even if their jobs are be completely eliminated from the public sector, even if we add all possible benefits including those supposedly rich public service pensions, it won't be possible for Alberta Health Services to come up with anything like the promised cost savings.

This is obviously because the work done by lab technicians, laundry workers, food service workers and the like cannot simply be made to disappear. Patients still have to eat; hospital rooms must still be cleaned, and those blood samples our doctors keep asking us to give up will still need to be analyzed for sugar, cholesterol and the four humours.

Shandro backhandedly acknowledged this during Tuesday's news conference by pretending that the employees in question won't be losing their jobs -- they'll just be switching employers.

That remains to be seen. But even if it turns out to be so, it is a given these workers will be paid less than they were as public employees -- as we can assume among this particular government's goals is restricting their rights in the workplace by making it difficult for them ever again to be members of a union.

Nevertheless, they are still going to have to be paid something.

After all, we have abolished slavery in Canada -- if not wage slavery -- so these newly privatized workers are still going to have to be paid for their efforts.

Let's imagine that their new private-sector employers can get away with paying them 25 per cent less. That's still going to result in a direct cost to their employers in the order of $450 million a year. Add in the cost for corporate profit, corporate accounting services and corporate borrowing at higher interest rates for new facilities -- for example, for industrial washing machines for the laundry -- and about the best you could hope for is that the cost would be about … $600 million.

In other words the saving is certain to be illusory. The benefit to the province will be negligible, if not negative. (And it may well be negative, since modestly paid Canadians tend to spend their limited dollars at home, on local businesses, unlike foreign billionaires.)

And who is going to pay that? Why, AHS, of course, through their contract with the new private-sector service suppliers.

In other words, at best this is a shell game in which the government pretends to be saving money on salaries while spending more on services contracted from for-profit corporations.

Given the typical behaviour of large corporations, the first-year contract may be a deal. But costs will rise in subsequent years. So in the long run, we will end up paying more.

Shandro claimed there will be no layoffs among clinical front-line health-care workers. This is almost certainly not true, since AHS says it is proceeding apace with plans to lay off at least 600 nurses in the short term, and possibly as many as 5,000 over the longer term.

But it is also a deception on the health minister's part, since most of the workers the UCP intends to eliminate are front-line health-care workers too. That Shandro understands this is revealed by his careful use of the word clinical to mean members of regulated professions.

This is making a lot of people unhappy, and not just unions as Premier Jason Kenney's issues managers pretend.

Even Brad Wall, back in the days he was Saskatchewan's premier and not just another Calgary oilpatch nobody, used to pay attention to what his voters wanted. And what Alberta voters emphatically don't want is a health-care system once again in chaos -- which is exactly where the UCP seems intent on sending it.

There are even rumbles of discontent from among Kenney's own handpicked panel members.

So what Premier Jason Kenney is up to with this rolling disaster is something of a mystery.

Perhaps he arrogantly believes that no matter what he does, Albertans will never abandon Conservative government as long as there is only a single dominant conservative party.

Maybe he's hoping to provoke a strike or similar crisis from which he can emerge in a Trumpian law 'n' order gambit as the strongman who can save the nation, or at least the province.

Or perhaps he puts ideology so far ahead of common sense he simply doesn't care what will happen once he's broken all the crockery. Face it, Kenney is going to have a good retirement on his parliamentary pension no matter what happens to the rest of us.

Or maybe he's actually not all that smart and he's still looking for an oil-price miracle.

It's hard to say. One thing that's clear is that the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic derailed any plan the UCP had to do its worst in the first year of its mandate.

The electoral window during which damage like this can be perpetrated by any government that hopes to be re-elected will be closing soon. If Kenney is to implement his ideological program in his government's first term, the imperative he faces is to march or die.

Of course, with Kenney at the helm, the choice faced by the UCP's increasingly nervous MLAs in Calgary and even some rural ridings may be march and die!

Meanwhile, in B.C., John Horgan plots a different course

Meanwhile, over the Rockies and not so far away in British Columbia, where the NDP government will go to the polls on October 24, Premier John Horgan is taking a dramatically different approach to the same difficult file.

Premier Horgan said yesterday that cuts made by B.C.'s so-called Liberals (who are really conservatives) during their years in power left the province vulnerable to COVID-19, and he vowed to keep making progress on the B.C. NDP's efforts to fix the mess the Liberals left behind.

"The B.C. Liberals passed laws that devastated long-term care and led to the layoffs of 10,000 workers, most of whom were women," said Horgan, a description that would surely ring bells in Alberta if our local media was paying attention.

Many of the health-care workers laid off under the Liberals had to reapply for their old jobs at less pay, he noted, and many had to work multiple jobs, helping the spread of COVID-19 when the pandemic arrived in Canada.

So, Horgan said, if the NDP is re-elected, "We'll make sure that the pay increases we put in place to get through the pandemic are made permanent."

What's more, he vowed his government will press ahead with its plan to hire 7,000 more long-term care workers, and it will build new public long-term care facilities throughout the province.

Not in Alberta? Pity.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Tyler Shandro/Screenshot of Twitter video

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