Alberta Health Services takes a tough line with staff as budget cuts loom

EDMONTON – A freeze on managers’ salaries, hiring restraint and a proposal not to increase wages for hospital support workers will bring immediate savings to the health care budget, Vickie Kaminski, CEO of Alberta Health Services, said Thursday.

Premier Jim Prentice commended AHS for the cuts. He then took specific aim at improper cellphone use by AHS employees that he said costs taxpayers thousands of dollars.

“There seem to be a lot of smartphones but a large number don’t seem to have smart people attached to them,� Prentice said.

“Significant roaming charges� are turning up on many bills and “it’s not appropriate to charge those kinds of charges to taxpayers,� he said.

Dozens of cellphones with bills of more than $500 cost AHS about $825,000 in the past 18 months, Kaminski said.

She also revealed that AHS withdrew its offer of a one-per-cent increase for three years to Alberta Union of Provincial Employees hospital workers and substituted a wage freeze, a move the union called “very frustrating.�

Kaminski said that “we had little choice, it was the most direct action we could take.�

She warned“more aggressive cost-cutting� is coming as falling oil prices reduce government revenues.

AHS will honour its four-year contract with the United Nurses of Alberta and related health professions as there is no signal the government is looking for wage rollbacks, Kaminski said.

Health Minister Stephen Mandel declined to comment on how deep the spending cuts should go and whether AHS will see its funding reduced in the spring budget. “We’ll have to wait until the budget appears,� Mandel said.

While he is not involved in collective bargaining with AUPE, Mandel said the “premier’s position is no wage increases at this point. In time, we’ll have to see how this plays out.�

AUPE filed a complaint of bad-faith bargaining against AHS late last month after it changed its offer, union president Guy Smith said.

The union is reviewing its options, including arbitration, for food service workers and cleaners in the bargaining unit, Smith said.

“It’s very frustrating as these are support people earning $40,000 year,� he said.

AHS will also review its policy surrounding sick days to ensure it is being properly applied. Sick days are costing $190 million a year, Kaminski said. Reducing one sick day from the average of 10 per employee would save $3.6 million, she said.

UNA president Heather Smith defended the policy over sick days, saying the answer is “better front-line staffing, not punitive attendance-management programs� proposed by Kaminski.

“Inadequate staffing persists across the province and a hiring chill or freeze is only going to further compromise patient care,� Smith said.

Costly severance payments, $3.5 million so far this year, have “cast a dark shadow� over AHS in the past 18 months Kaminski said.

“I want to see to see those as close to zero as possible� in the months ahead, she said.

Since 2011, AHS has spent $28 million on severance payments and it appears it was used to deal with employee issues rather than managing performance, she said. “It should be a last resort.�

AHS will also immediately cut travel, except when related to patient care, and will review cellphone use.

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