EDMONTON -- More than 7,000 public positions could be eliminated in Alberta over the next three years, unions across the province say they were told by the government on Friday.  

The province's largest union, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, is anticipating losing up to 5,900 full-time government and healthcare positions by the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year.

About 2,500 roles could be affected throughout numerous government departments. Another 2,000 to 3,000 jobs in the General Support Services bargaining unit may be impacted as the government considers contracting out Alberta Health Service's laundry operations, or environmental and retail food services.

AHS said it would also be looking at reconfiguring services at smaller sites, reducing clinic visits by moving patients to non-hospital facilities when possible, and closing acute beds as continuing-care spots open.

"While our budget has remained stable, Alberta's growing and aging population means we need to be more efficient and focused in terms of healthcare spending," reads the letter to AUPE.

"This places increased demand on our healthcare services and it means we have to do things differently in order to provide safe, effective and high quality care for Albertans."

The government promised employment security until March 30, 2020, for permanent unionized employees, but said starting April 1, it would be using all options in the collective agreement to ensure it is "on track to implement key priorities and support the government's path to balance."  

AUPE's president called the news devastating but unsurprising.

"AUPE members have been talking about this possibility for months. We have been preparing, rallying and picketing across the province, and building our capacity to stand strong and fight back," Guy Smith said in a statement to media.

"AUPE members know that only mass collective action at the worksite and in support of collective bargaining (which resumes early next year) has the power to fight the cuts."

Hundreds more healthcare jobs at risk: HSAA, UNA

Like AUPE, both the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and United Nurses of Alberta say they are bracing for cuts.  

HSAA, the union of health care professionals, says it was served a notice by Alberta Precision Labs notifying the union about looking for private companies to take over some lab services in the province.  

The union estimates contracting out lab services could jeopardize as many as 850 full-time positions, or nearly 1,000 employees when taking into consideration those who work part time.

"(Seventy per cent) of treatment decisions made by doctors rely on accurate lab results. A shift to privatization diminishes the quality of care people receive," a statement from HSAA president Mike Park reads.  

“Everyone knows a syringe for drawing blood costs the same in a public system as it does in a private one. The difference is private contracts include an additional budget line…profit."

And earlier in the day on Friday, United Nurses of Alberta announced it was expecting to lose as many as 560 positions in the next three years while the government tries to make health care spending "more efficient and focused," the province's nurses' union said. 

The health authority announced the plan in a letter to David Harrigan, UNA's director of labour relations.

In the letter, AHS lead negotiator Raelene Fitz echoes the government statement that a growing and aging population means cuts must be made.  

"AHS will proceed using an 'attrition-only' approach until March 31, 2020."

While AHS said the number of positions that will end up being affected is still unknown, the nurses' union says the impact will be more like 750 front-line positions cut.

"The elimination of that many [Registered Nurse] and [Registered Psychiatric Nurse] FTEs, equivalent to over a million fewer hours of care, will mean more than 750 front-line Registered Nurses will be laid off," UNA said in a news release.

Union president Heather Smith added she believes it's only the first wave of layoffs affecting nurses.

"The letter is basically an indication that they intend to pursue, what I consider to be fairly massive restructuring," Smith told CTV News Edmonton. "It's taking, reducing registered nursing care by at least a million hours. It impacts quality, it impacts access."

The letter specifically mentions 60 full-time jobs in home care services, including palliative and pediatric care, that could be contracted out.

"This is just, in my view, the tip of the iceberg," said Smith. "This is ideology. It's not evidence-informed."

'This is Americanization of our health care': Opposition health critic

NDP Health Critic David Shepherd called the oncoming cuts a broken campaign promise to maintain or increase health care spending by Alberta's premier.

“This is Americanization of our health care,” NDP Official Opposition Health Critic David Shepherd said.  

“The Premier raced to give $4.7 billion to big corporations in a failed experiment that hasn’t created any jobs to date. Now, Albertans that need care will pay dearly for his failure.

Premier Jason Kenney did publicly state in the run-up to the 2019 provincial election "there will be no cuts in the health budget," and signed a pledge committing to maintain health spending.

He addressed the anticipated nursing staff reduction on Friday while speaking from an event in Lake Louise.

"We’ve always been clear that getting our province’s finances back in order will require a reduction in the overall size of the public service and we hope to achieve that primarily through attrition," Kenney said.

He said he also kept his campaign pledge to maintain or increase health spending because the budget has actually gone up by $150 million.

"So there is actually no overall reductions in the AHS budget. We've kept our commitment, but they do have to find efficiencies."

AHS review could signal government's next steps  

The total number of public sector jobs the unions say could be affected is 7,460.

The nurses' union and the government are due to enter into collective bargaining in 2020, which is why AHS said it was giving the union a heads up.

There are more than 26,000 registered nurses employed by AHS, according to data available on the authority's website. A reduction of 750 nurse positions would amount to a 2.88 per cent reduction in the workforce.

The move comes as consulting firm Ernst & Young reviews AHS operations, which is expected to be completed sometime next month.

"There is the potential a number of initiatives may come from the recommendations to Government that AHS will have to review and/or implement," AHS said, adding changes would be announced in the coming months.  

AUPE said its own executive and local chairs would be meeting next week to discuss how to move forward.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified RPNs as Registered Practical Nurses. In Alberta, RPNs are in fact Registered Psychiatric Nurses. We regret the error.