Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw walks back the plan to end COVID testing and tracing in Alberta as Education Minister Adriana LaGrange looks on at Friday's news conference (Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

Friday the 13th appears to have lived up to its unlucky reputation for Alberta’s Kenney government.

Even before the fateful date arrived, the United Conservative Party strategic brain trust had concluded it would be a good time to walk back its risky July 28 decision to ignore the Delta variant and announce instead it would put off dropping COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and mandatory isolation until late September.

Don’t get me wrong, this is good news. But the government had to know the original decision didn’t reflect well on it, and, no matter what excuses it made or explanations it offered, Albertans were going to be reminded of that misstep when the news broke.

This probably explains the Friday timing of what in normally would be considered a good news story, worthy of a serious publicity effort near at the start of a week. It was also the likely reason the newser was hosted by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, who emphasized what else is being done “to further promote a safe school year,” such as it is.

Nevertheless, the news coverage that followed focused on, as the Edmonton Journal‘s reporter put it, how “Alberta is delaying its much-criticized plan to end routine COVID-19 testing and mandatory isolation this month until Sept 27.”

This must have been embarrassing after all the effort UCP issues managers like Matt Wolf put into assailing anyone who criticized the July 28 plan as “lockdown zealots,” “armchair quarterbacks,” and wholesalers of “fear porn,” not to mention his repeated accusation that “some just don’t want the pandemic to end!”

After all that work, the pushback from parents must have been fierce to persuade the government to pivot and take seriously rising hospitalizations here and the many children sickened by COVID south of the Medicine Line as the Delta variant rampages through the Lower 48.

“Given this emerging evidence, I want to further monitor these trends,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw told the news conference, nevertheless downplaying the danger to unvaccinated children in Alberta.

It doesn’t appear to have occurred to any of the government’s issues managers, however, that an issue requiring management might come out of bargaining with the United Nurses of Alberta scheduled Friday.

So it was probably an unpleasant surprise when a UNA news release revealed that Alberta Health Services has been in discussions with a nurse recruiting agency in Toronto, Greenstaff Medical Canada, to hire temporary nurses and pay them more than is now paid to the nurses from whom AHS is demanding significant wage rollbacks.

This scheme is not going to be well received by the thousands of nurses represented by the union who are already angry at the government’s demand for 3-per-cent retroactive across-the-board pay cut and other monetary rollbacks that will cut at least another two per cent from the pay of most nurses.

On Wednesday, nurses at about 40 worksites across the province held information pickets to protest AHS demands for rollbacks — which are based on directives from the UCP government — and the chronic staff shortages that are leaving many burned out and exhausted.

So the advertisements from nursing agencies now appearing online certainly undermine the government’s repeated claims nursing staff shortages plaguing Alberta hospitals are short term and mostly the result of summer holidays. The ads notwithstanding, AHS told media it’s only in “preliminary discussions” with Greenstaff Medical.

“It’s outrageous that AHS, acting on the instructions of the Alberta government, is proposing to reduce the compensation of nurses that it already employs, and threatening to lay off hundreds more, while paying more to nurses hired by the Canadian arm of a multinational recruitment agency based in Texas,” said UNA labour relations director David Harrigan in the union’s news release.

UNA President Heather Smith told the Edmonton Journal the plan was “beyond insulting.”

The differences between what the agency proposes to pay contract nurses and the current pay of AHS nurses are dramatic — and they don’t include agency profit margins, so AHS would be paying even more.

Ads for Greenstaff and Nurse Relief Inc. now found online show nurses from Ontario and other provinces are being offered up to $75 an hour to work in ICU and Emergency. Alberta nurses represented by UNA are paid between $36.86 and $48.37 an hour, which is at least 3 per cent too much according to Finance Minister Travis Toews.

It’s hard to imagine Albertans, large numbers of whom revere the province’s nurses and the work they do, are going to like the idea of paying nurses from other provinces more while trying to cut the pay of nurses who live here and spend their money in Alberta!

For his part, Toews issued a statement Friday once again thanking Alberta nurses for their hard work, a sentiment not likely to win many hearts under the circumstances, and touting the employer’s request for an informal mediator. He urged both parties “to work together in good faith.”

This is difficult for AHS to do, of course, when Toews is empowered by UCP legislation to require the employer to bargain in bad faith by giving its negotiators secret directives they may not describe or even acknowledge to the union.

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: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...