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UCP government announces massive health-care layoffs at hastily called news conference

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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro at this morning's news conference. Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

If you think this morning was a crazy moment for Health Minister Tyler Shandro to announce a major restructuring of public health care in Alberta, including the layoffs of 11,000 public health-care workers, right in the middle of the most serious health-care crisis in 100 years, you're right.

Everybody, including the government, understands this. There may well be repercussions that are far from ideal from the government's perspective.

But look at it from the point of view of Premier Jason Kenney, his United Conservative Party and their strategic issues management brain trust.

They knew the CBC's Edmonton investigative reporting unit was hours away from breaking a major scoop on the recommendations of the "review" by multinational management consultants at Ernst & Young that included one to lay off closer to 16,000 public health-care workers, among them nurses and other front-line clinical health care workers.

They also knew a lot of Albertans, including many of their own supporters, would be furious at the thought the government was about to make heavy cuts to an already overstressed workforce on the front lines of the war against COVID-19 -- the one health-care war almost everyone except a few cranks agrees really needs to be happening.

They knew what the CBC was going to do because reporters Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell did everything right, including calling the government up, telling it what the story was going to say, and asking for the government's comments and explanations.

So this is how Shandro and his press secretary Steve Buick responded, Rusnell said in a tweet posted early this afternoon. "We have had a leaked copy of the AHS draft implementation plan for weeks," he explained. When Russell "reached out to Shandro thru Buick on Thurs. with briefing note explaining issues. Buick promised an interview for this morning," Rusnell said.

"Instead, they leaked info from an updated plan to The Journal that left out critical info," he said in his next tweet.

Providing an opportunity for a response is what every journalist is taught in J-school must be done when they are about to publish controversial story about any individual or organization.

The government's obviously panicky response will have journalists interested in protecting their scoops seriously reconsidering this traditional approach, and with good reason.

Government and AHS officials both promised to give Rusnell and Russell the comments they requested -- but they reneged and never called them back.

Instead, they appear to have spent the long weekend writing up an 82-page implementation report that eliminated acknowledgement of the plan to lay off nurses and other front-line clinical professionals, which they proceeded to send to friendlier reporters at Postmedia, allowing them to beat the CBC reporters who did all the work.

Then they called the hastily organized news conference at which Shandro and an uncomfortable looking Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu did their best to spin the story as not having any impact on front-line health care while COVID-19 remains a threat.

Shandro's department put out a press release that opened with the claim, "There will be no job losses for nurses or for other front-line clinical staff."

And -- since COVID-19 is a great excuse not to hold news conferences at which reporters can actually shout out their questions if they're ignored -- when Rusnell and Russell called in, they wouldn't let them ask any questions.

"We were not allowed to ask questions in the news conference," tweeted Rusnell, who tends to say what he's thinking. "I asked @stevebuick2 how we should deal with him in the future, given that his word is no good. He wouldn't say."

If you want further evidence the government wasn't expecting to have to announce the Ernst & Young report just yet while they considered how to implement their plans, consider the letter to United Nurses of Alberta labour relations director David Harrigan sent just this morning by Lee McEwen, AHS's executive director of negotiations and labour relations.

In it, McEwen stated confidently that AHS intends to proceed with its previously announced elimination of 500 full-time equivalent nursing jobs, which the union says will work out to about 750 actual living, breathing nurses being laid off.

The news conference was an interesting affair in other ways too. Shandro kept repeating that there would be no layoffs of nurses or other health-care professionals, and he kept saying that this would be the case until the government declared the COVID-19 pandemic to be over. Which, of course, the government can do any time it pleases, facts notwithstanding.

So that commitment's not worth all that much.

Shandro also made the point over and over that AHS's so-called "operational best practices" scheme, under which the layoffs confirmed in McEwen's letter are planned, was implemented under the NDP.

OBP was implemented by AHS when the NDP was in power. For some reason, though, Shandro forgot to mention that when the plan was implemented, the NDP made a commitment that no full-time equivalent hours would be lost. In other words, no layoffs.

Still, it was amusing to hear the health minister repeatedly referencing the NDP for its wisdom and foresight -- this from the party that promised us a summer of repeal. Any old port in a storm, I guess.

Like the E&Y report, Shandro also kept promising that layoffs of laundry and other support workers represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, and future layoffs of cooks and housekeeping staff, will save money. This is highly unlikely. Laundry will still have to be cleaned; food will still have to be cooked. But now there will have to be a profit margin built in as well.

Yiu tried to help him out by noting that AHS now won't have to borrow to pay for expensive upgrades to laundry plants. Good try, but that doesn't wash either. Someone's going to have to pay for those improved facilities, and businesses will have to pay higher interest than governments. So, one way or another, taxpayers are going to end up paying the freight for this.

The only possible way for this to save money is to reduce the wages now paid workers to poverty levels. Even so, it's predicted here, the promised savings will prove illusory.

Remember, the people now promising that 11,000 layoffs will save $600-million are the same ones who said a $4.7-billion tax break would create tens of thousands of jobs. We all know how that worked out.

Needless to say, telling health-care professionals that they won't be laid off … until after the pandemic a few months from now … is probably not a great plan to keep them from thinking about moving to other jurisdictions where their services are valued.

So on top of everything else, thanks to our UCP government, Albertans can look forward to a shortage of nurses in the months ahead. Oh well, there's always the Babylon app. If you're worried about your health, that ought to reassure you.

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: YouTube/Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

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