08/10/2012 04:07 EDT | Updated 10/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Negotiations to resume Sunday in Nova Scotia homecare contract dispute: union

HALIFAX - With a strike deadline looming, last ditch talks will begin this weekend in the contract dispute involving hundreds of workers employed by Northwood Homecare in the Halifax area.

Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union president Joan Jessome said both sides were given word Friday that negotiations would resume with the help of a conciliator at 5 p.m. Sunday.

However, Jessome said a strike deadline of 7 a.m. Monday still remained in place for about 400 workers.

She said that deadline could change if the union determined that it was making headway once talks resume.

"If there is progress being made then there is no way we will call a strike for Monday morning," said Jessome.

The main sticking point in the dispute is unpaid on-call scheduling, which sees homecare workers on-call for 10 hours while they are paid for an eight-hour day.

Northwood Homecare says it needs scheduling flexibility to meet the needs of its 1,600 clients.

Jessome said the union believes it's unreasonable to expect people to give up two hours of their day to their employer without being paid.

Jessome said with the latest development, she was optimistic that something could be worked out.

"We wouldn't be called back to the table if there wasn't something that we could be looking at."

If the talks fail however, clients would be required to make alternate arrangements for help with their personal care, from such things as bathing and dressing to meals and light housekeeping.

Northwood Homecare spokesman John Verlinden said with the needs of clients often being unpredictable from day-to-day, Northwood needs the ability to adapt its scheduling.

He said the scheduling requirement has also been a way of providing workers with a "level of guaranteed hours," although he conceded it was true that workers could be faced with gaps in their workday.

"While we don't disagree with what the union is asking, we need to find a responsible way to bridge the gap between when they (workers) have to be available and when they actually work," he said.

"Both sides have an interest in trying to avoid a strike situation and are trying to work towards that."

Northwood Homecare is contracted by Capital Health to provide care for patients in the Halifax area, including along the eastern shore and north into the Annapolis Valley as far as Windsor.

The company bills the provincial Health Department for the number of hours of care it provides.

Health Department spokeswoman Carla Grant said while the government has worked with the company and Capital Health to create contingency plans for those who need care the most, it planned to remain out of the dispute.

"We encourage both sides to get back to the bargaining table and work this out there," said Grant.

The company's last contract offer included a two per cent wage increase over two years.