Vancouver Sun

Nurses promised ‘a culture of safety’

Proposed contract also offers more money, deals with staffing issues

- KELLY SINOSKI ksinoski

B.C.’s 42,000 nurses are poised to vote on a tentative five-year contract with the Health Employers Associatio­n of B.C. that promises higher pay and better working conditions, including more protection against assaults and violence.

B.C. Nurses’ Union president Gayle Duteil said the proposed contract, which will cover all licensed practical nurses, registered nurses and registered psychiatri­c nurses, will improve conditions for both nurses and patients by “establishi­ng a culture of safety and violence prevention,” while providing more benefits to nurses who are injured on the job so they can get back to work sooner.

A triage nurse in Abbotsford, for example, remains off the job after being assaulted in an emergency ward last spring.

Duteil said the number of assaults against nurses has been rising as they face more patients with dementia or a “plethora of mental health issues,” particular­ly with the closure of Riverview Hospital. In the past five years, 5,280 incidents of violence against nurses have resulted in claims, but the union maintains there are scores of near misses while others go unreported.

“Violence is probably one of the biggest problems we face every day. It’s been an issue we’ve been working on for a number of years but it’s been highlighte­d recently,” Duteil said.

Duteil said the finer details were still being worked out, but touted the move for improved safety for nurses as “groundbrea­king,” saying the contract is expected to provide millions of provincial dollars to help prevent workplace violence by offering more security officers as well as training to help nurses dealing with violent patients, whether it be in hospital emergency wards, mental health units, or long-term care homes.

The union has also received commitment­s from the province for safer emergency department­s, especially in larger hospitals, and those with psychiatri­c units.

“Our goal is to achieve a handsoff approach for nurses,” she said. “We do not want nurses involved in taking down violent or aggressive patients.”

The deal will also put “more money in nurses’ pockets,” address key issues with respect to benefits, and give nurses a stronger voice in shaping health care policy and delivery, Duteil said, while dealing with major issues of staffing and workload.

“That’s a key factor for us because, for a long time now, we’ve been speaking out about shortages and the failure to replace and educate the necessary nurses as needed.”

Duteil would not elaborate on specific contract details until nurses have had a chance to see the proposed agreement. BCNU’s governing council and bargaining committee will recommend the agreement to members before nurses vote on the package. Results will be available after May 10.

Health Minister Terry Lake said the contract falls under the provincial government’s economic stability mandate, which applies to public sector employees. More than 250,000 employees have already ratified agreements under the mandate.

“Over the past year, health employers have worked collaborat­ively with nurses to reach an agreement that both prioritize­s patient needs and recognizes the value nurses provide to the health care system,” Lake said.

As Finance Minister Mike de Jong exited the legislatur­e chamber after question period Tuesday morning, the news was already circulatin­g about a positive developmen­t in public sector contract bargaining.

“Tentative five-year agreement going to members for ratificati­on,” the press release from the B.C. Nurses’ Union said. “Better for nurses, focuses on safe patient care.”

If approved by the 42,000-member union in meetings this month, the deal would mark the last major settlement in a round of public sector bargaining that commenced just after the last provincial election.

Should the nurses ratify, I asked de Jong, would that mean a clean sweep? “Yes — well, 98 per cent,” he replied, allowing for the handful of agreements still outstandin­g.

It’s no small accomplish­ment for the keeper of the public purse. About $26 billion of the $45-billion annual budget pays wages, benefits and other compensati­on for several hundred thousand people working in the broad public sector.

Most of the payout is accounted for by contracts with public sector unions and employees’ associatio­ns in central government, Crown corporatio­ns and provincial­ly funded entities in health care, education and social services.

Some 171 agreements have already been reached, covering 264,607 employees. The nurses would push the employee tally past 300,000, leaving a handful of agreements covering 6,442 employees pending — hence de Jong’s 98 per cent.

Not to say it hasn’t been a slog getting to this point since de Jong first laid out the bargaining mandate in the fall of 2013 for contracts expiring the following spring.

After two rounds of hold-the-line bargaining following the 2008 recession, the Liberals did try to lighten up by offering employees what was billed as economic growth-sharing. But they were also looking for longterm predictabi­lity in wage costs via five-year agreements extending out to 2019.

In exchange, public sec- tor workers were offered increases of 5.5 per cent over the five years, plus the possibilit­y of additional raises via a so-called economic stability dividend.

The latter would be paid only if the economy grew at a faster rate than the aggregated projection­s of the members of the government forecastin­g council.

Skepticism greeted the bargaining scheme at the outset because the pay increases were modest and some observers questioned whether the dividend would ever be paid.

Still, with the Liberals ensconced in office for another four years after their surprise election victory, the public sector unions had to be realistic. This offer was more generous than the last two and, upon closer examinatio­n, it looked as if the dividend would be paid in some years as well.

By early 2014, the Health Sciences Associatio­n, the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union and several of its affiliates — representi­ng in all about 70,000 public sector workers — had signed up early for the five years.

Notwithsta­nding the momentum from those settlement­s and a subsequent deal with unions representi­ng 44,000 hospital workers, most of that year’s bargaining headlines would be dominated by a typically difficult round with the BC Teachers’ Federation.

But to the surprise of many, including more than a few folks in the education sector, the BCTF settled. So did dozens of other bargaining units, plus the associatio­n now known as Doctors of BC on behalf of some 10,000 fee-for-service physicians.

As 2015 dawned, only a few dozen contracts remained to be settled. But one of those was the nurses, who had a raft of outstandin­g issues including complaints that the government had failed to live up to staffing and workload commitment­s made in the previous round.

Complicati­ng things on the government side were clauses in a half-dozen other public sector agreements, linking those settlement­s to any deal with the nurses. Those so-called me-too clauses were negotiated by those unions as insurance against the possibilit­y the Liberals would strike a richer deal with the nurses. In that event, the government would be obliged to pay the same to the workers with the me-too provisions in their contract.

Still, for all the obstacles, both sides were this week claiming success. Full details won’t be released until after ratificati­on.

But B.C. Nurses’ Union president Gayle Duteil said the terms would “improve the benefits, compensati­on package and working conditions of nurses across B.C.” Plus the government had given way on concerns “about staffing and workload that directly affect the safety of patient care,” she said.

From what Duteil said at a press conference Tuesday, it would appear that one key was an innovative agreement to tackle the growing problem of assaults on nurses by troubled patients.

The government followed past practice of noting the tentative nature of the settlement and leaving it to the union leadership to defend the contents to members.

But in response to media questions, the Finance Ministry did say that the settlement falls within the mandate for other public sector deals, and thus would not trigger any me-too provisions.

The ministry also confirmed earlier reports that public sector workers are this year collecting their first economic stability dividend in the form of an additional wage increase of just under one-half of one per cent.

Not a huge increase — for someone making $50,000 a year, it works out to $225 — but confirmati­on that the growth-sharing is not an empty provision.

As for the Liberals, if the nurses do ratify later this month, they can count on labour peace between now and the election, and perhaps halfway into the next term if the voters return them to office next spring.

Some 171 agreements have already been reached, covering 264,607 employees. The nurses would push the employee tally past 300,000.

 ?? WAYNE LEIDENFROS­T/FILES ?? B.C. Nurses’ Union president Gayle Duteil says a new contract will “improve … working conditions.”
WAYNE LEIDENFROS­T/FILES B.C. Nurses’ Union president Gayle Duteil says a new contract will “improve … working conditions.”
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