Administrative Professionals’ Deal

This article appeared in the Fall 2023 edition of the Union Stand

Throughout Nova Scotia, there are thousands of administrative professionals toiling away in our hospitals and community care settings. While they often don’t get the acolades and attention that other health care professionals do – typically because their work is more behind-the-scenes than hands-on patient care – they are every bit as integral to keeping our health care system functioning, especially in these chaotic times.

Last October, the NSGEU headed to the bargaining table along with CUPE and Unifor to begin negotiations for a new contract for the more than 5,000 Health Administrative Professionals (HAP) working for Nova Scotia Health and IWK whom we collectively represent in this sector.
These professionals are the first point of contact with patients; manage registrations; control the switchboard and communications; ensure test labels are accurate; assign beds; share lab results with clinical staff; book appointments, transfers and admissions; order and receive supplies; manage payroll; and much more. Without these professionals and their labour, health care just doesn’t work.

We bargain for this group – as well as for health support services, nursing, and health care – as part of a Council of Unions, because of legislation passed by Stephen McNeil’s government, with CUPE designated as lead at the HAP table.
Due in large part to delays on the part of the employers, as well as COVID restrictions slowing down negotiations for the other Council tables who had been designated to go ahead of the HAP group, by the time HAP got to the bargaining table in October 2022, their contract was already two years expired.

Another important factor to note with regard to timing is inflation: a wage pattern for the public sector had already been established by the health care table prior to inflation taking off in 2022. That meant that the annual wage increases agreed upon by other groups now did not keep pace with the soaring rates of inflation (which averaged 6.8 per cent for 2022).

With some members of the bargaining unit earning as little as $18 per hour, pattern economic adjustments totaling 6.5% over the life of the agreement were seen by many as unacceptable, especially in the face of the unprecedented inflationary pressures we were now facing. What the government was offering these workers now essentially amounted to a wage cut.

By April 2023, after many days at the bargaining table with the employers, the committee brought back a final offer from the employer with the recommendation to accept, as they believed it was the best they were able to achieve at the table.
Members ultimately rejected that agreement by a very narrow margin, but fewer than half of the members of the bargaining unit voted on the agreement. Ratification votes and strike votes are calculated in different ways: ratification votes are based on the number of ballots cast, whereas strike votes are calculated based on the total number of members in the bargaining unit. So, it was imperative to increase membership engagement. We needed to send a clear message to government and employers that health admin members were prepared to walk if they didn’t improve their offer.

The unions immediately got to work: members were taken off the job to begin phone banking, calling their fellow members to talk to them about why a strong strike mandate was critical, and answering questions about what a strike in their workplace would look like. A series of meetings were held with the members, leadership traveled to work sites throughout the province to talk to the members, and radio ads began to run throughout Nova Scotia. By June, the unions had an 81.5 per cent strike mandate in place.
At the same time as this strike vote work was taking place, the unions were pushing the employers to provide an essential services plan.

You see, the McNeil government had also passed another piece of legislation, the Essential Health and Community Service Act, which requires unions and employers to negotiate an essential services’ staffing plan prior to taking legal strike action. The employers had been dragging their feet on the essential service process, essentially hiding behind this anti-union legislation in an attempt to prevent job action.

As the unions and their legal team attempted to pressure the employers to engage in the essential services process in a meaningful way, the employer also refused to return to the table with the unions: a clear sign that they were in no rush to conclude a collective agreement, or take this group seriously. It was time to increase the pressure.

We launched a series of e-actions, asking members and their supporters to send messages to elected officials to start taking their profession and their negotiations seriously. Members were encouraged to set up meetings with the MLAs and show up at their community events to discuss the matter. The unions began an onslaught of media releases calling out government for their refusal to bargain a fair collective agreement for these members – 85 per cent of whom are women – launched new province-wide radio ads, and took out full-page ads in newspapers to ask why Premier Tim Houston didn’t respect low wages work.

In early September, the unions held a province-wide Day of Action in front of 11 hospitals. Members wore red to show how angry they were with employers and government for how they were being treated in the bargaining process – and encouraged their colleagues to do the same. People turned out in droves for the lunch-time action, with all major media outlets turning up to cover the event:

• The Chronicle Herald: ‘Need a good pay increase’ to stay afloat: Health admin workers rally across N.S.
• Cape Breton Post: Administrative health-care workers in Cape Breton accuse province of disrespect
• CBC 6 o’clock news (6:16 mark):
• Canadian Press/CityNews: N.S. hospital administrative staff hold rallies across province for higher wages
• Global Halifax: N.S. hospital administrative staff hold rallies across province for higher wages
• CTV Atlantic: Health Care administrators picket in NS
• Halifax Examiner: Health care administrative professionals rally across Nova Scotia demanding better pay

Government and the employers were sufficiently – and rightfully – embarrassed. We quickly received a request to return back to the bargaining table on October 11th, and after one final long day at the table with employers, the bargaining committee was able to bring back an improved offer to the membership, with a recommendation to accept.

The offer that was brought forward was a five-year deal which included cumulative wage increases totaling between 15.15 to 22.75 per cent within the life of the agreement. Specifically, the contract includes pattern economic adjustments totaling 6.5% over the first three years of the agreement (Nov. 1st, 2020 to October 31st, 2023) PLUS new economic adjustments as follows:

• All classifications with a top rate of less than $20 per hour as of October 31st, 2022 will receive an extra $1 per hour increase at each step prior to the 3.0% increase effective November 1st, 2022;
• All classifications will receive an extra $0.80 per hour increase, effective November 1st, 2023, prior to the 3% general economic increase on November 1st, 2023.
• Increase of 3.0% to all pay grades on November 1st, 2023;
• Increase of 2.0% to all pay grades on November 1st, 2024

The contract also includes significantly increased shift and weekend premiums, as well as substantive improvements in various leave provisions.

Members of the Health Administrative Professionals bargaining unit voted to accept the improved tentative agreement by 77 per cent.

While we are pleased to have concluded this lengthy round of bargaining and to have achieved a much-improved collective agreement for our HAP members, it’s important to note that even with the significant financial gains achieved here, there are members of this bargaining unit who will still be earning less than what is considered to be a living wage, and we will be looking to rectify that during the next round of bargaining.

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