EDMONTON -- The provincial government is promising no nurses or frontline clinical staff will be among the 11,000 Alberta Health Services employees laid off during the pandemic.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and AHS CEO Verna Yiu announced Tuesday the health authority would continue with a plan to find savings from management layoffs and contracting out laundry and lab services.

Officials estimated between 9,700 and 11,000 people would be affected over the next three years.

The government expects to save $600 million annually when the changes are made.

“Given the circumstances that Alberta faces, this approach strikes the right balance between the two unprecedented challenges we face as a province: On one hand, the response to the pandemic, and on the other hand, the fiscal reality that we face as Albertans,” Shandro said at a media conference that morning.

The majority of jobs, about 9,700, the government said, will end up under a private employer when AHS begins to contract out services: 400 laundry workers; 2,000 lab workers; 4,000 housekeepers; and 3,000 food workers. 

AHS will look at privatizing housekeeping in 2022 and food preparation in 2023. Requests for proposals will be issued by the end of the year for community lab and laundry services.

Currently, the private sector provides about 70 per cent and 68 per cent of lab and laundry services, respectively. The cuts are expected to impact rural areas hardest, where most of those services are still done in house.

The other option facing AHS, Yiu said, was $38 million in equipment maintenance, or $100 million to transition to a service hub-and-spoke model.

But the president of the Alberta Union of Public Employees said those workers, many of whom are women or single earners or new Canadians, are the backbone of Alberta's health care system. 

"They're not clinical but they're certainly frontline," Guy Smith told CTV News. "They keep our hospitals and our health care facilities safe and clean and keep our patients fed." 

NDP and Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley echoed the sentiment: "The person who cleans up the vomit on the floor is a frontline worker. 

"So let us be very clear: Jason Kenney and Tyler Shandro are firing frontline workers in the middle of a pandemic."

Smith said AUPE members would be preparing to strike in response. 

Back office and non-clinical operations – things like distribution, inventory management and scheduling and overtime management – are to be streamlined, as well the government announced Tuesday.

And by the end of the fiscal year, a minimum of 100 management positions will be cut while a review of AHS’ 3,300 senior management – including Yiu’s leadership team – is done.

“We are not in any means bloated bureaucracy, as we’ve been termed before,” she said, adding, “There’s always room for opportunities and improvement.”

The CEO said it was important for her to model the change in her own office that was needed throughout the organization.

“Many of our managers do provide frontline care. In fact, 60 per cent of them. So it’s very important we support them during these difficult times.”

While the government is promising no critical workers will be laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shandro did not say reductions wouldn’t continue afterwards.

“What we’re saying is that there will be no layoffs for clinical front staff like nurses. So during the pandemic, no nurses are going to be laid off,” he told media.

He said reductions could continue to happen through attrition, or a savings-finding program implemented by the NDP called “operational best practices.” More than 1,000 employees are expected to be affected this way. 

United Nurses Alberta called the move by Alberta Health dangerous and irresponsible. 

"There is nothing to prevent this government from prematurely declaring the pandemic to be over whenever it pleases, so this is a meaningless promise," UNA's director of labour relations David Harrigan said in a statement. 

The Ernst & Young review that spurred the cuts initially recommended 16,000 layoffs.

However, the government said not all of the report’s 57 recommendations could be carried out given the pandemic.

Other measures – like virtual care options, and expansion of Alberta’s surgical capacity in chartered facilities – have already been taken.