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Union takes aim at ‘top-heavy’ GNWT over staff shortages

A file photo of the new Stanton Territorial Hospital in July 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
A file photo of the Stanton Territorial Hospital in July 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

The NWT government must “address the top-heaviness in our public service” to free up more money for healthcare workers, the Union of Northern Workers says.

Union leader Gayla Thunstrom, responding to service reductions announced last week, said the territory’s staffing crisis needed a “government-wide plan” that incorporated housing, childcare and mental health.

Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital will have reduced surgical capacity until at least the end of September because specialist operating-room nurses are in short supply, the territory said last week.

Health services are at a reduced level in 12 of the territory’s communities according to a tracker published by the NWT government.



Health minister Julie Green has said even “special targeted measures including additional incentives” are not having the desired impact as the market for staff nationwide is so competitive.

“I want to assure people that we are taking steps to make sure residents get the care they need when they need it,” the minister said earlier this month.

Thunstrom, however, said the GNWT was “hiding behind the ‘national shortage’ excuse for its failure to effectively recruit more workers” and needed to do more.

“High-level senior managers burn through funding and resources with endless studies, strategies, and consultants, but have little tangible progress to show for it,” Thunstrom stated in a Tuesday press release.



“This leaves less money for hiring more people on the ground floor who are doing the hands-on work and who deserve competitive wages, benefits, and supplements.”

The UNW’s president said the GNWT had “wasted time and money” contesting the union’s requests during collective bargaining in 2018 – a dispute that nearly triggered a strike involving thousands of people.

The GNWT had made only a “half-hearted attempt” earlier this year, Thunstrom said, to offer extra financial incentives to attract and retain healthcare staff. She accused the territory of refusing to negotiate when the union “had questions and did not immediately and blindly agree.”

At the time, in March, Green told MLAs: “Unfortunately, the approach proposed was not agreed to. While I am disappointed, I want the public and healthcare workers to know that we will continue to engage with the UNW on other ways to support the recruitment and retention of healthcare professionals.”

Healthcare is far from the only sector currently suffering a staffing shortage.

At an Inuvik conference last month, an entire room of employers raised their hands when asked who among them had experienced recent difficulty finding staff.

In Yellowknife, some stores and restaurants have abandoned their published opening hours while utility companies have been forced to cut back customer services.

“The GNWT needs to work with the UNW and other northern labour organizations to find comprehensive solutions to the staffing shortages we face not just in healthcare, but across the entire NWT workforce,” Thunstrom stated.