Accepting that “a lot of people are struggling with morale” in the NWT’s public service, the minister responsible for human resources pledged solutions as soon as possible.
In particular, Caroline Wawzonek said, she and health minister Julie Green are trying to find ways to help healthcare workers who have complained about the absence of hazard pay during Covid-19 and other workplace stresses.
Green had earlier suggested the GNWT’s collective agreement with the Union of Northern Workers meant individual groups of employees could not be singled out for specific new benefits like Covid-19 hazard pay.
But there are provisions in that collective agreement for the GNWT and union to agree a “labour market supplement … to deal with recruitment and retention problems resulting from unusual labour market shortages,” a broad definition that could be readily applied, for example, to the pandemic.
The CBC reported an occasion in 1999 when the GNWT used exactly that device to temporarily pay bonuses to incoming and retained nurses.
Questioned by Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby in the legislature on Thursday, Green adapted her stance, saying: “There are conversations ongoing now between our two departments that need to involve the union as well, to see whether we can create a specific … mechanism that would address the question of retention bonuses.”
Interviewed by Cabin Radio, Wawzonek said she and Green had been working for some time on solutions and acknowledged the frustration of some GNWT staff.
“Long before that, it was very apparent to Minister Green, to me as minister responsible for the public service, that a lot of people are struggling with the morale right now across the public service, including, particularly, front-line workers,” said Wawzonek.
“We had started to have conversations about what we can do, generally, to help with morale – which can be a lot of things that have nothing to do necessarily with money. I mean, folks are fairly well-paid in terms of salary here.
“And if it does come down to money, can there be some sort of hazard pay, can there be some sort of supports for the childcare impacts of when the lockdowns occurred and these folks had to go to work, even though their children were now at home? Can there be some sort of encouragement or enticement in terms of bringing them to the North? There are a lot of options.”
Wawzonek said her government was working as fast it could, while respecting the role of the union, regular MLAs, and others, to find a way of acting.
“We are wanting to ensure, of course, that we’re being fair to all the workers in the Northwest Territories who have struggled – fair and abiding by the collective agreement, and fair and abiding by the spirit and the principle of negotiating in good faith with the union,” she said.
“It is literally happening in real time. This is one of those times where I think people get frustrated with government answers because there are processes in government of drafting up an idea, having it reviewed, reviewing it against, for example, the collective agreement, engaging with the union directly in this case, having conversations that go up through the financial management board or cabinet, involving MLAs.
“None of that sounds very exciting, but not doing that doesn’t result in better ideas and better policies. So those are steps that have to happen.”
Union ‘happy to sit down’
So far, there is no indication of what the eventual outcomes might be.
By email, Union of Northern Workers President Gayla Thunstrom said of issues like hazard pay or retention bonuses: “The UNW would be happy to sit down with the employer to discuss that matter, and to find a fair and equitable solution for all healthcare sector workers who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.”
In a separate statement, Thunstrom wrote: “With retention being one of the biggest challenges facing healthcare right now, employers need to treat workers fairly and find creative solutions to the pressures that workers are facing. Band-aid solutions that fail to address the systemic issues will only continue to prolong the problem.
“The pandemic has shown us how quickly the GNWT can adapt its workplaces and policies; we know that positive change can happen if the will exists. We need all government departments to work together to find holistic solutions to the many issues that feed into this crisis.
“The collective agreement between unionized workers and the GNWT also provides flexibility for finding solutions to many of the specific issues our healthcare workers are facing. The employer needs to listen to what our members are saying and work with the union in a meaningful way to find those solutions.”
In the legislature, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson questioned why staff morale was now the issue when, earlier, the NWT government had attributed problems at the obstetrics unit to a nationwide nursing shortage.
“It seems that as these things unfold, there’s one line of messaging coming from senior management and the minister’s office – and then eventually there’s another line of messaging coming from the people who actually work there,” said Johnson.
“When the explanation was given as to why we are closing down this unit, nowhere was it mentioned that in fact, for years, the nurses there have been demanding more positions. They have been saying that they are overworked and not adequately funded in that unit. It took nurses who fear repercussion from that same management to speak out publicly in the media.
“I would have thought at that press conference, the first thing you would have done is got an obstetrics nurse to actually speak. I’ve never seen that happen in this government.”
Caitlin Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, later told Wawzonek with reference to a labour market supplement: “I haven’t heard a single union that’s negotiated for less money for their membership, so I’m sure the union would welcome that conversation.”
Cleveland asked Wawzonek when a conversation with the union on the matter would occur.
Wawzonek responded: “I don’t know. I want to assure the public, the minister of health and I had already started this conversation before what started happening this week in obstetrics.
“Sometimes it takes a bit of time for an idea to actually be fleshed out into something that can be implemented, and it certainly takes more time to go through the processes necessary to attach money to it.
“I wish it could have all happened yesterday. It didn’t. But the conversations are being had.”