Nova Scotia introduces essential services bill as nurses prepare to go on strike

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government introduced essential services legislation late Monday, a move Premier Stephen McNeil said was necessary hours after the union that represents about Halifax-area nurses filed notice that they were preparing to go on strike Thursday.

The Essential Health and Community Services Act would require unions and employers throughout the health care sector to have an essential services agreement in place before job action can occur, and if such an agreement can't be reached, an independent third party decides.

Employers or unions that take job action before an essential services agreement is in place would be fined $100,000 for the first day and $10,000 for each additional day. People would face fines of $1,000 for the first day of job action and $200 for each day after.

McNeil said the fact that there have been three health care labour disruptions within seven months underscores the need for such a law.

"This is about striking a balance between ensuring that Nova Scotians have the services when they need them while protecting the workers right to strike," McNeil said outside the legislature.

Labour Minister Kelly Regan said Nova Scotia was the only province without that kind of legislation.

"Like all Canadians, Nova Scotians deserve to know their health and safety won't be in jeopardy during a labour disruption," Regan said in a statement.

In addition to nurses, the bill would apply to paramedics, 911 operators, 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. It would take effect as soon as it is passed and not expire.

The move came after the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union filed strike notice to Regan earlier in the day. The 2,400 nurses that the union represents are in a legal strike position as of Thursday.

Union president Joan Jessome could not immediately be reached for comment but she has the nurses would defy legislation that curtails their right to strike.

The union and the Capital District Health Authority have been unable to come to an agreement despite the help of a mediator.

Capital Health spokesman John Gillis also said the two sides were still discussing the union's latest offer on emergency staffing. He said that as the strike deadline approaches, the health board continues to cancel surgeries and transfer patients to hospitals outside of Halifax.

The key sticking point in the dispute is a demand from the union to increase nurse-to-patient ratios, something it says would improve patient safety. The health authority has said there is no evidence that mandated ratios guarantee better safety.

The essential services legislation would also allow parties to request conciliation or mediation to help negotiate an essential services agreement, and if they can't agree, either party could apply to the Nova Scotia Labour Board.

"Most employers and unions reach collective agreements without strikes or lockouts, but even the possibility of a labour disruption can create stress and confusion," Regan said.

"This bill gives certainty to people who need and provide care, and ensures essential services must be provided in the event of a strike or lockout."

NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald said she was shocked that the legislation would apply to so many health care employees, calling it "heavy-handed," and her party will not support it.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said outside the legislature after the bill was introduced that he was disappointed the premier didn't allow negotiations to run their course but he will support it.

It marks the second time in a month that the Liberals have introduced essential services legislation.

On March 1, the government passed a law to end a one-day strike by about 420 home-care workers in the Halifax area.

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