When the government announces its new contract with the province’s physicians, expect them to claim it fits within the guidelines it intends to impose on less powerful, more vulnerable public sector workers. It isn’t. Not even close. It’s all McNeil smoke and mirrors.
We won’t know for certain until Wednesday (Nov. 27) whether Nova Scotia’s 3,100 doctors have agreed to a new four-year contract with the provincial government. But we can guess. And that guess would be yes.
Doctors Nova Scotia has been officially lips-zipped silent about the terms of the deal during the past month while its doctor-members voted. But not silent-silent. “We believe we have now reached the best deals possible for Nova Scotia’s doctors,” its president, Dr. Gary Ernest, boasted.
We don’t even need to guess what was in the last barrel of rotten apples to which Ernest must be comparing this contract crop to describe it as “best.”
In May 2016, five months after the McNeil Liberals rammed through draconian legislation imposing a two-year wage freeze on all public sector workers, the government happily announced it had “negotiated” a new deal with doctors.
The doctors “negotiated” a two-year wage freeze followed by increases totalling two per cent for the last two years of the contract.
That’s… uh… the same wage deal the government unilaterally imposed on other public sector workers.
Here’s the rude reality.
While the doctors were officially exempt from McNeil’s my-way-or-the-highway wage-pattern package, his government — in that same legislation — also took away the doctors’ previous right to seek arbitration, meaning they would have been at the mercy of the McNeil meanies either way.
And the actual deal the doctors signed was even worse than it seemed if you consider the huge non-wage issues Nova Scotia doctors — and our healthcare system — are facing. Doctors Nova Scotia’s then-president Michelle Dow made clear that, although physicians had “accepted” the wage deal, “they were disappointed that this contract brought little innovation or opportunities to advance patient care.”
And so it has gone.
Government without end.
So what makes this soon-to-be-signed contract “the best deals possible?”
Despite the cone of silence around its terms, some details have leaked out.
In late October, CTV reported the contract called for doctors to receive an eight per cent wage increase over four years, and that some of them — family physicians, anesthetists and ER doctors — would become “the highest paid among their peers in Atlantic Canada by the end of the contract.”
In mid-November, allnovascotia.com, the subscription-based business and politics uncovered the contract’s full, all-its-gory details.
The devil, as always, is in those details.
According to the news website, the contract to be officially unveiled on Wednesday will indeed include across-the-board increases totalling 8.2 per cent, just a slight nudge up from the CTV report.
As allnovascotia provincial reporter Brian Flinn noted, however, that is already “one percentage point more than the government had offered Crown attorneys” before their negotiations acrimoniously broke down last month, triggering a three-day strike.
More intriguingly, allnovascotia’s analysis shows the basic 8.2 per cent raise accounts for less than 60 per cent of the $135 million the government will actually shell out in the full-meal deal contract — about three times more than it spent the last time.
There’s $55 million, for example, in “repair spending,” which the province has agreed to in order to bring five specialties into closer alignment with the wages they would receive in other jurisdictions.
That means the actual average value of the wage increases will be at least 23 per cent rather than the soon-to-be-announced eight.
But that’s not all. Between the doctors’ previous hold-the-line contract and this one, the McNeil government had already topped up the pay packets of family doctors by 13.5 per cent in 2018 to encourage more of them to take on more new patients. These new increases will be on top of that.
The government has also agreed to pump up specific fees and rates for everything from delivering babies, to working in ERs, to psychiatrists’ consults — all designed to target specific problems such as the lack of rural maternity care, closures at emergency rooms and the absence of available mental health services.
According to what Doctors Nova Scotia has told its members, the new agreement also commits the government to work with doctors to come up with solutions to other critical, non-salary issues like physician burnout and lack of consultation.
Interesting. And good.
While I won’t delve too deeply into the meaning-minutiae of each of those numbers, my sense — more, my certainty — is that McNeil’s minions will still pretend this new doctors’ deal is really “just” eight per cent over four years and therefore within the wage “guidelines” it wants to impose on its most vulnerable public sector workers.
Get out your pencils.
According to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the average Nova Scotia doctor earned — pre-new-deal — $259,368 a year. While it’s worth noting that’s the lowest average income for a doctor in Canada, it’s also not chump change.
For an already well-paid physician, even an eight per cent increase will stuff an extra $20,750 per year in her or his wallet. A 23 per cent jump will mean an additional $59,655, or, in other words, a raise that is about ten grand more than the average industrial wage for a worker in Nova Scotia.
Translation: a lot of dollars.
But let’s consider another healthcare worker, a continuing care assistant who…
“… assists nurses, hospital staff and physicians in the basic care of patients. They are employed in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted care facilities for the elderly, and other health care establishments.”
At the moment, the minimum wage for a CCA is $15.63 an hour. If the unionized workers accept the 8 per cent boost the McNeil government offers, they will earn $1.25 more an hour more — after four years.
That’s not nothing, of course, but it’s still nearly $2.30 an hour below even what the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculates is barely a “living wage” in Halifax. Today.
If they were to get the 23 per cent raise some doctors will receive, the picture isn’t much brighter. CCAs would still only end up earning five cents more per hour than the current living wage. And who knows what a living wage in Halifax will be in four years?
The problem with talking about percentage increases is that percentages always favour the better off.
And the problem with pretending 23 per cent is just eight per cent is that it only exacerbates the harm to the province’s most vulnerable workers.
Stand by for the results of the vote. And the beginning of the spin.
This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner November 25, 2019.