Union unrest spreads to health authority

Jared Monkman/NNSL Photo Residents packed the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre on Thursday evening for a constituency meeting for both Hay River MLAs. The trending topic of the night was the plight of heath authority employees with regards to whether and when the transfer to the GNWT will take place.

Jared Monkman/NNSL Photo
Residents packed the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre on Thursday evening for a constituency meeting for both Hay River MLAs. The trending topic of the night was the plight of heath authority employees with regards to whether and when the transfer to the GNWT will take place.

All other issues were left behind as employees of the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority packed the last MLA constituency meeting last week and demanded answers.

“When is the transfer going to happen?” asked Terry Rideout, referring to the much-discussed GNWT takeover of the authority. “We were not told ‘if’ but ‘when.’ We’re all cautious about this.”

In an ongoing discussion that started decades ago, the Department of Health and Social Services is looking at absorbing the local health authority. The issue most recently flared up in the wake of Health Minister Glen Abernethy’s announcement last summer, of the proposed unified territorial health board. The move is intended to reduce cost and increase efficiency in the health system. At the time, Abernethy said if legislation is passed, the new board could come into effect April 2016 but added that the date is tentative.

To do so, the GNWT would have to buy out the pensions of all authority employees with an estimated $20 million price tag.

“This has been on the radar for two decades now and it’s been left on the back burner, at first because employees weren’t interested,” said Hay River South MLA Jane Groenewegen. “Now there are new things that will spur this on.”

She cited the new legislation being introduced for the territorial health board as well as the transfer to the new health centre in the coming months.

But the imminent move to the new facility is part of the employees’ problem. Several people at the meeting said they had heard maintenance duties would be taken over by the Department of Public Works, leaving the current maintenance workers to an uncertain fate.

“That raises a red flag for other areas, like nutrition and housekeeping,” said Rodger Blake. “We’re down to a matter of weeks before we move and we still don’t know the answers to these questions.”

Hay River North MLA Robert Bouchard assured those present that he had yet to hear of any job losses as a result of the move but that he and Groenewegen would both push for more details while in session.

Beyond simple job losses, employees were concerned with what a union representative termed “continuous service,” essentially asking if authority workers would maintain their seniority if absorbed into the GNWT. Again, both MLAs said they would make sure the issues were heard in Yellowknife.

About 100 people turned out to the meeting, most of them from the health authority, which employs about 300 people in town.

“We’re just looking for some answers about what’s coming,” said Lesley Schynder. “It seems like every time we sit down with the government, the story changes. Are we safe? Are we not?”

-Sarah Ladik