08/14/2012 11:50 EDT | Updated 10/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta government orders striking seniors home workers back to jobs

EDMONTON - The Alberta government imposed binding arbitration Tuesday on striking workers at a seniors home, but denied the move had anything to do with the recent death of a resident.

The province ordered workers at Revera Riverbend Retirement Residence in southwest Edmonton to return to their jobs immediately because of what it called a "public emergency."

Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk said the government stepped in after inspections found that care had deteriorated for the 120 seniors when replacement workers came in during the 10-week strike.

Human Services Minister Dave Hancock made the call after receiving a recommendation from Health Minister Fred Horne.

"Alberta Health Services has been monitoring the quality of care to all patients in the residence and the minister is satisfied that at this point of time it is appropriate to end the strike, because there has been some diminishing of the quality of care — and that's exactly what we're doing," Lukaszuk said.

"It was a general deterioration because of the fact that there was a turnover of employees at a very high rate, which normally you would not see," he said.

"Different charting practices from different facilities brought in, lack of familiarity with patients, lack of familiarity with the facility. All that resulted in disjointed and not well co-ordinated care provided to the senior, which could potentially result in problems."

The union for the 80 licensed practical nurses, health-care aides and support staff who walked out June 5 said its members would obey the directive.

But the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees expressed doubt that the employer would play fair in the three weeks the two sides have to reach a contract agreement with a government-appointed mediator. If no deal is reached, arbitration binding on both sides will kick in.

"When the employer came back to the table when (staff) had been ... out so long already and offered them less than what they started with? That doesn't speak well ... so we'll see how it goes and hope for the best," said union vice-president Sandy Kyle.

"We want to go back to work here."

The union has said that licensed practical nurses at Revera Riverbend already make 14 per cent less than the industry standard.

Lukaszuk said the recent death of a resident, identified in local media reports as Margaret Green, did not contribute to the decision.

A daughter of the woman's friend told CTV Edmonton that Green had complained of a sore throat and asked for help from relief staff.

"She said .... 'I need an ambulance. I think I’m having little strokes,'" Gwenyth Barr said.

The union and staff have suggested she may not have died if the labour dispute had been dealt with in a timely fashion.

“She knew something was wrong and asked for help, and it wasn’t forthcoming until a family member phoned for the ambulance,” said union president Guy Smith.

The union said an ambulance was called Aug. 4 and Green died a short time later. Her death was reported to the province.

But Lukaszuk said the woman was in the independent living area and only received minimal assistance from health-care workers.

Provincial officials wouldn’t speak about Green's case for privacy reasons, but officials said investigations are automatically carried out after a person in care is harmed in any way.

Revera Riverbend said in a statement it believed Green received appropriate and timely care.

Smith said it's too bad the labour dispute couldn't be resolved through collective bargaining.

That's what happened at the Hardisty Care Centre in Edmonton on July 26 when 80 employees ratified their first contract after being on strike for two months.

(CHED, CTV Edmonton, The Canadian Press)