11/01/2011 02:16 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

Nurses at Nova Scotia's largest health unit awarded wage hike by arbitrator

HALIFAX - About 2,500 nurses who work at Nova Scotia's largest health authority have been awarded wage increases by an arbitrator that will add millions to the province's health budget.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union said Tuesday that the nurses who work for the Capital District Health Authority have been awarded a 7.1 per cent wage increase over a three-year period, retroactive to Nov. 1, 2009.

The union said nurses received a one per cent wage increase for each of the first two years of the deal followed by a 3.5 per cent hike on Tuesday and a 1.6 per cent increase on May 1, 2012.

The union had been looking for four per cent increases in each of three years while the province wanted one per cent hikes in each of two years.

Union president Joan Jessome said the increases mean a nurse with six years experience will get an additional $5,000 a year by next May to bring their annual salary to over $70,000.

She said that's still less than what nurses in Newfoundland and Labrador are paid.

Jessome said the arbitrator's decision will provide the basis for future negotiations for other government bargaining units.

"I don't think that was on the employer's agenda," she said.

Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said she couldn't say if her department or the health authority will be forced to shoulder a budgetary hit because of the increases.

"We're still doing an evaluation of the decision to establish what the financial implications are," she said.

Contract talks broke off last May and the dispute was sent to binding arbitration in June after the union rejected an offer that would have given nurses a one per cent pay increase in each of the last two years of an agreement that expired in October 2009.

Liberal health critic Leo Glavine said the arbitration decision breaks the government's pattern of one per cent increases offered to other public sector workers.

"Many other workers across the province have bit the bullet to do cost-saving measures and to agree to a one per cent increase over the last two years," said Glavine.

Premier Darrell Dexter said the government realized there were risks in going to arbitration. He said the alternatives were either to legislate a contract or allow the nurses to strike.

"I would suggest that the first one would be unacceptable to working people in the province and the second one would be unacceptable to everyone in the province," Dexter said.

The premier said the wage increases would undoubtedly add millions of dollars to an already stretched provincial budget.