Catching Up

Summer 2023 - Catching up

PUSHING FOR PARITY Nurses at Coquitlam’s Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre are directly employed by the provincial government. They and other public service nurses are heading into contract negotiations and aiming for wage parity with their health-authority employed counterparts. From left: Nicole Sumra, Emily Martell, Caroline Bouvier, Christine Brisebois and Kareen Cadiz.

A widening wage gap and staff shortages are top bargaining priorities for public service members

Nurses who work with at-risk children and youth say it’s time for the government to properly fund care at the facilities where they work.

More than 80 BCNU members currently staff child and youth mental health teams across BC. This number also includes nurses working at the Burnaby and Prince George Youth Custody centres, and Coquitlam’s Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre and Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services in-patient assessment unit. All are direct government employees. Unlike most nurses in BC, who work for a health authority and are covered by the Nurses’ Bargaining Association (NBA) collective agreement, these members are covered by the public service contract.

They report that the wage gap between public service and health-sector nurses is worsening a critical nursing shortage at their worksites. Over the past few years, the number of new nurses hired hasn’t kept up with those who have quit or retired, affecting the safety of the children and youth in programs overseen by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Christine Brisebois is a nurse and program coordinator at Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre and a member of BCNU’s public service nurses’ bargaining committee. “Our health-care system is in crisis when it comes to taking care of kids in our province,” she says. “More children and youth need services and there is less staff. Caring for at-risk children and youth is not an area that many nurses are looking to work in due to the complexity of the patients – and the wage gap doesn’t help.”

“The government needs to do something significantly different this time to show they are committed to keeping these nurses.”

Christine Brisebois.

The wage gap between the public service and NBA contracts began in 2010, when BCNU successfully negotiated increases for NBA members that helped recruit and retain nurses in the health sector. Since then, public service wages have not increased at the same rate, which makes it harder to attract nurses to that sector. Members working for the provincial government now report being constantly short-staffed and forced to work overtime to keep their programs running.

“These nurses are working with patients with complex needs, many of whom are dealing with trauma and mental health issues,” says BCNU President Adriane Gear. “They need proper staffing levels to deliver the safe, high-quality care vulnerable youth need.”

A new round of public service bargaining is scheduled to begin this fall. To prepare, the nurses’ bargaining committee has surveyed its members and is currently meeting to review bargaining proposals. Brisebois says heavy workloads and wages are the top priorities.

Wage issues have been top-of-mind at every bargaining round, and previous public service contract negotiations have attempted to address the wage gap and its negative effect on nurse recruitment and retention. In the last round, the union negotiated a memorandum of agreement to review work opportunities and compensation between nurses employed by the government and those employed in the health sector. Following the review, which was undertaken with the assistance of a facilitator, Corinn Bell, a new wage step was created for hospital component nurses working at Coquitlam’s Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre and Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services in-patient assessment unit, and the Burnaby and Prince George Youth Custody centres. However, because the new step was only applicable to the hospital component nurses, it was deemed a labour market adjustment and not a general wage increase.

Brisebois says the next contract needs to go further, and wants to see wages for all public service nurses – including those who work on community child and youth mental health teams – on par with the NBA 2022-2025 collective agreement, which contains a general wage increase for all employees.

“With each new [NBA] agreement, public service nurses’ wages are increasingly further apart from nurses working in health authorities. So, I believe that public service nurses will accept nothing less than wage parity,” she says. “If this is not achieved, we will likely see more public service nurses leaving for other positions.”

In addition to wage increases, Brisebois and her co-workers want the government to look at more ways to attract nurses to public service worksites. And while the government has stated it is committed to recruitment and retention, she says sites like Maples aren’t publicized as places to work.

“I think the government needs to do something significantly different this time to show they are committed to keeping these nurses,” says Brisebois.

Gear agrees that the province needs to get more aggressive about its recruitment and retention efforts if Brisebois and other nurses in the public service are going to see improvements in their sector. “In hospitals and the community, we have seen how patient care suffers when there are not enough nurses,” she says. “The provincial government must improve the staffing and practice conditions needed to keep nurses in the profession and ensure safe care for all patients – and that includes at-risk children and youth. They must invest in sustainable recruitment and retention strategies that will address the staffing crisis over the long-term.”

UPDATE (Summer 2023)

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UPDATED: December 19, 2023

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