08/13/2012 05:53 EDT | Updated 10/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Workers approve tentative deal in Nova Scotia homecare contract dispute

HALIFAX - Personal care workers in the Halifax area voted Monday to accept a new contract that calls for the eventual elimination of a contentious scheduling provision.

The two-year deal for some 400 workers at Northwood Homecare was reached Monday afternoon — the same day the employees had been expected to walk off the job.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said of the 238 ballots cast Monday night, 148 were in favour of accepting the deal.

The main sticking point in the dispute was a requirement for workers to be available for 10 hours while only being paid for eight hours of work.

Jessome said the new deal includes a memorandum of understanding that the requirement will be eliminated over time, starting with a quarter of the membership by mid-November, followed by smaller groups of workers potentially every four weeks.

She said the narrow, 62 per cent approval of the deal Monday attests to how divisive the issue has become among the membership.

"Overall we're pleased, but we're not surprised by the acceptance percentage because this is a very big issue to the home support workers," Jessome said in an interview.

"People didn't walk out of here arm-in-arm, they're a bit divided on this."

The workers assist about 1,600 clients with their personal care including bathing, dressing, meals and light housekeeping.

They were in a strike position Monday, but progress in conciliated negotiations kept both sides in the dispute at the table.

Jessome said bargaining would now resume between both sides because the new contract expired last March.

She said the resumption of talks was "a good thing" because it would give the union a chance to tweak the contract if there are problems with eliminating the unpaid, on-call scheduling requirement.

"It's got to be fixed," she said. "If there are any snags on the road, I'll tell you the membership will not settle for this (during the) next round."