Opposition grills Alberta health minister on looming AHS layoffs at committee meeting

Health Minister Tyler Shandro refused to say Tuesday how many layoffs will result from the UCP government’s decision to move forward with an Alberta Health Services cost-cutting plan he initially said would see as many as 11,000 employees laid off, mostly through outsourcing.

Shandro appeared before the standing committee on families and communities to field questions about health spending outlined in the provincial budget released last month.

In his opening remarks, the minister cited the government’s four-per-cent increase to the health budget, with $23 billion earmarked for 2021-22, which he called an “historic investment in health for our province.”

But the question-and-answer portion quickly turned heated as NDP health critic David Shepherd tried to pin Shandro down on the job losses that will result from an Alberta Health Services (AHS) cost-cutting plan unveiled in October.

“Front-line health-care workers that we have spoken to about this were shocked, very shocked, that you had set a course for mass layoffs during a global pandemic unlike any we have seen before,” Shepherd said.

“So Minister, can you just explain to the people of Alberta why you believe these layoffs are necessary?”

Shandro replied that “there are no layoffs” even as he confirmed the government will move forward with a “balanced and appropriate portion” of the AHS plan which includes the outsourcing of laundry and community lab services beginning in 2022.

There will be no layoffs of front-line clinical staff during the pandemic, Shandro said, and ultimately there will be a net increase of 2,940 AHS positions.

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said that number is an estimate and the health authority has not yet determined the breakdown of those jobs.

AHS is planning for investment in areas such as the province’s chartered surgical facilities initiative, continuing care, and the new Grande Prairie hospital, and also estimates 1,500 new positions are needed for the province’s pandemic response, Williamson said.

In October, Shandro announced between 9,700 and 11,000 AHS employees will be laid off under the plan, most of whom work in laboratory, linen, cleaning, and in-patient food services. Those services will be outsourced to private companies.

At that time, Shandro also said AHS will eliminate some nursing positions through attrition. When asked about layoffs of front-line clinical staff after the pandemic, he said “I think any involuntary reductions will be minimal.”

He said the plan’s estimated savings of $600 million annually would be reinvested into the health budget.

AHS plan moving ahead 

Shandro’s press secretary, Steve Buick, said Tuesday that the “plans are essentially as announced in the fall.”

He said the requests for proposal for outsourcing of laundry and lab services are expected to be finalized and any layoffs will take effect in 2022. There are no specific timelines yet for the procurement process for outsourcing of housekeeping and in-patient food services, Buick said, but the changes are not expected to take effect until 2023 or later.

Buick pointed to the wording of AHS’s request for proposal for lab services which states “the successful proponent(s) will be required to assume all impacted unionized, non-unionized and medical staff on the same or similar terms and conditions as exist prior to transition.”

NDP health critic David Shepherd said the government should commit to cancelling its plans to lay off AHS staff. (Zoom)

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