HALIFAX – Nurses in Halifax walked off the job Thursday as the Nova Scotia government prepared to push a law through the legislature to end the strike.
Dozens of nurses holding picket signs marched outside the main doors of the Halifax Infirmary. Drivers honked their car horns as they passed by the hospital near the city’s downtown in support of the strikers.
The strike affects services at a handful of hospitals and health centres in the city, but its impact has already been felt across the Maritimes.
The hospitals provide medical treatment to people in the three Maritime provinces and some patients have already been transferred to other health districts in the region.
The Capital District Health Authority issued a statement on its website warning patients of what to expect at its hospitals.
“This strike will significantly impact most of the services that we provide,” it said.
Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, says she expects the strike to last about 30 hours.
A few hundred of the 2,400 nurses represented by the union staged a wildcat walkout Tuesday that forced the cancellation of dozens of surgeries.
They were protesting against an essential services bill introduced by the province’s Liberal government, which would end the strike when it is passed by the legislature in a vote that’s expected Friday.
Jessome said Wednesday the union will respect the law.
“When the legislation passes, we will go back to work,” she said.
The union is demanding higher staffing levels as a way to improve patient safety. Capital Health says the demand for nurse-to-patient ratios won’t work because it is too inflexible and there is no evidence it would improve safety.
The union and the health authority have agreed to maintain full staffing levels for emergency rooms and units offering dialysis, cancer care and intensive care. But Capital Health CEO Chris Power said Wednesday many other services won’t have enough nurses to provide proper emergency care.
As an example, she cited the surgery unit for people with brain tumours and brain injuries, saying there won’t be enough nurses to handle an emergency. Power said the same was true of the coronary care unit, which is full of ill patients but will have 70 per cent of it regular nursing staff.
The hospital that offers long-term care for veterans will have 66 per cent of its regular nursing staff on duty, she said.
“These people live there and require our nurses to care for them,” Power said “We will use every effort to provide the best care we can … but our patients and the provincial health-care system will be at risk.”
Dr. Patrick Ward, the authority’s chief of critical care, gave a more ominous warning.
“Is is possible that someone can be hurt?” he asked. “The answer to that would be yes.”
Jessome said that up to 60 per cent of the union’s members in Local 97 will be working Thursday.
On Wednesday, hospitals in the city handled only emergency cases and outpatient surgery. About two dozen more serious procedures were cancelled, even though the facilities were fully staffed.
Premier Stephen McNeil has said the new law is needed because there have been three labour disruptions in the health-care sector within seven months.
McNeil has said the law would not take away a union’s right to strike because that option remains open once essential staffing levels have been negotiated. The nurses’ union says such deals can take up to six months to reach, effectively undermining the leverage of a strike.
The legislation would also allow parties to request conciliation or mediation to help negotiate an essential services agreement. If they can’t agree, either party could apply to the Nova Scotia Labour Board.
The law would apply to nurses, paramedics, ambulance dispatchers, hospital employees and people who work in homes for seniors, youth and people with disabilities. In all, about 35,000 to 40,000 workers would be covered by the law.
The nurses in Local 97 primarily work at four places in the Halifax area: the QEII Health Sciences Centre, Nova Scotia Hospital, East Coast Forensic Hospital and Public Health Services. The region’s largest children’s hospital, the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, has nurses from another union.