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As Alberta opens for summer, hospital beds start to close

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney flipping pancakes in Calgary Saturday (Image: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta).

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his cadre of new cowtown cabinet ministers were flipping pancakes and engaging in cowboy cosplay at a stampede breakfast in Harley Hotchkiss Gardens in downtown Calgary this morning.

The premier's stampede breakfast, according to the notice from his press secretary yesterday, "celebrates Alberta being open for summer."

But not everything will be open for summer, as it turns out.

Shortages of nurses are leading to emergency room beds across the province being closed. That's nothing to celebrate, so I imagine the UCP MLAs manning the pancake flipping stations won't be very enthusiastic about that topic today.

Media reports last night said six of 27 acute care beds have now been closed at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital, which has one of the busiest ERs in Canada.

Around 10:30 p.m., United Nurses of Alberta labour relations director David Harrigan tweeted that "shortly after being interviewed about the bed closures at the Royal Alec, I was informed that 12 beds now closed at the Cross Cancer Institute. They did it on the weekend with no memo or information to staff. Morale has never been lower."

On Friday, 12 beds were closed in Lacombe's hospital north of Red Deer. Staff shortages were identified as the problem there too.

And that, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg. Health-care employers have been having trouble finding workers, especially professionals like nurses, for months. Beds are being closed in hospitals throughout the province.

The problem is particularly severe in rural areas. Pandemic exhaustion, mandatory overtime, chronic short-staffing, beckoning retirement, and lack of meaningful recognition for nurses' sacrifices are all contributing factors.

With nurses, hailed as Alberta's heroes throughout the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic, now facing significant pay rollbacks in contract talks with Alberta Health Services -- in which AHS bargainers confirm the Kenney government is calling the shots -- this situation is not going to get any better.

It's astonishing, when you think of it, that a hard-line market-fundamentalist party like the UCP doesn't seem to understand the law of supply and demand.

As previously reported, Canada can expect a shortage of 60,000 nurses next year. Hospitals in Ontario are already offering bonuses as high as $75,000 to nurses who will come from out of province to work for them. Nearby provinces are signing collective agreements with nurses' unions that contain modest pay increases.

Does this sound like the right moment for the Alberta government -- pleading post-pandemic poverty after losing billions to corporate tax cuts, bad bets and giveaways -- to demand across-the-board retroactive wage rollbacks from Alberta's more than 30,000 public sector nurses?

Where's Adam Smith when you finally need him?

Oh yes, the government keeps saying Alberta nurses are paid more than nurses in other provinces. Never mind that all occupations in Alberta are paid more on average than in other provinces.

For months, while risking their lives to fight COVID-19, Alberta's already overworked nurses have lived under the threat of seeing about 750 layoffs take place as soon as the pandemic was declared over.

In bargaining with UNA last week, after the government faced considerable public pressure to drop the layoff scheme, AHS changed course and offered a letter of understanding on job security, but only if the union agreed to the three-per-cent rollback to base salary. The loss of lump-sum payments in the current contract, which AHS is also trying to eliminate, would raise the pay cut faced by all nurses to five per cent.

If the nurses won't take the pay cut, then the layoffs are back on the table.

It's not hard to see that if layoffs proceed, or disgust at the government's bargaining tactics drives more nurses out of the workforce, the bed closings spreading across the province are not going to go away.

But Kenney, in a political and financial bind of his own creation, has reverted to form.

He's picked a fight with health care workers. If he can cut their pay, he can claim to be balancing the budget. If they push back, he'll blame the problems he's causing on their unions, and try to drive a wedge between voters and the Opposition. If he can use the fallout to make a case for privatization, he'll view that as a bonus.

None of this bodes well for Alberta.

Best summer ever? Enjoy your flapjacks while they last.

Full disclosure: As many readers of this blog know, I am an employee of United Nurses of Alberta.

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: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

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