Nurses union raises alarm about new overtime restrictions at Alberta Health Services

Financial troubles are prompting Alberta Health Services to cut back on overtime pay, reduce reliance on private staffing agencies and leave some jobs vacant, says a leaked memo to health leaders.

AHS asks managers to rein in spending on overtime pay and private nursing agencies

A bed stretcher in a hall. People in scrubs can be seen walking down the hall.
Alberta Health Services is telling leaders to reduce spending on overtime pay and temporary workers from private agencies. (hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Financial trouble is prompting Alberta Health Services to cut back on overtime pay, reduce reliance on private staffing agencies and leave some jobs vacant, says a leaked memo to health leaders.

The memo, obtained last Friday by the United Nurses of Alberta, says AHS is forecasting a deficit for its 2023-24 fiscal year.

"We acknowledge areas of the health-care system continue to be stressed," writes acting chief financial officer Michael Lam in the memo. An AHS spokesperson verified the document is authentic.

Lam says the financial shortfall is due mostly to increased vacant jobs and sick leaves driving up overtime pay costs and increasing reliance on pricey private staffing agencies.

Last year, AHS said employees worked 2.3 times more overtime in 2022-23 compared to three years earlier.

CBC News also reported last year that AHS' spending on contract nurses increased 13-fold between 2015-16 and 2021-22.

Lam's memo says most of the spending cuts are aimed at employees who don't work in patient care.

The exception is a requirement for all areas to cut spending on overtime pay and agency staff by 10 per cent, "while minimizing impacts to front-line service delivery," the memo says.

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson would not say what the organization's projected deficit is this year, or how much AHS needs to cut.

According to Alberta Health's annual report, AHS finished its 2022-23 fiscal year with a $1.12–billion accumulated surplus.

United Nurses of Alberta's director of labour relations David Harrigan said any move that could reduce the number of front-line health-care workers on shift is alarming.

As the province is hammered by respiratory virus season, emergency rooms are overwhelmed and AHS has added extra intensive care beds in Edmonton and Calgary.

Reducing overtime hours and private agency relief staff will put remaining workers under more strain and worsen patient care, Harrigan said.

"To suggest that we can just reduce overtime by 10 per cent without impacting front-line service delivery — it's just not realistic," he said.

Government expects AHS to stay on budget

The United Conservative Party government's plans to dismantle AHS into four new organizations overseen by a government council will create uncertainty and make it harder to retain graduating students and recruit workers from elsewhere, he said.

Andrea Smith, press secretary to Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, did not directly answer a question about whether the government told AHS to trim costs to balance its budget.

Provincial funding to the agency is about $16.7 billion this year, which is a 3.8 per cent increase from the previous year.

"Alberta's government expects that all entities spending taxpayer dollars do so efficiently and effectively," Smith said in a statement. "It is important for AHS to manage their approved budget."

She said the government is trying to grow the permanent health-care workforce, which is more sustainable than relying on overtime and temp agencies. The provincial budget predicted an increase of 3,500 full-time equivalent health-care workers this fiscal year. It's unclear how close the province is to meeting that target.

NDP primary and rural health care critic David Shepherd accused the government of meddling in health-care decision making.

Shepherd said AHS needs more permanent employees before scrimping on overtime.

"If we make these kinds of arbitrary decisions, I'm afraid that quality of care is going to even get worse," he said.

Shepherd said the health system needs additional funding to help stabilize conditions.

Williamson, of AHS, said the agency is ensuring front-line teams get resources to care for patients. Hiring restrictions don't apply to clinical care workers, he said.

"We are aware of the current challenges facing our workforce and are working diligently to address staffing shortages and reduce workforce fatigue," he said.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.