The province made the move just hours after the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees announced its members would legally go on strike Monday at eight Extendicare Canada centres. The walkout would have affected care for 1,000 seniors.
Craig Loewen, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, said concerns for the seniors prompted the government to have both parties work through a disputes inquiry board for the next 45 days.
During that time, Extendicare cannot lock workers out and staff cannot strike.
"Our primary concern is the continued care of Albertans, particularly the vulnerable that are in these facilities," said Loewen. "We believe the parties can benefit from an independent, non-binding, third-party perspective."
AUPE negotiator Kevin Davediuk said the government's decision suggests Extendicare did not have a contingency plan to protect residents in the event of a strike.
"They (Extendicare) pushed staff into the position of a strike without having a plan in place to deal with the consequences. That's irresponsible and dangerous," Davediuk said in a news release.
If no resolution is reached through the disputes inquiry board after 45 days, the province can impose a settlement through a third party if there should be a strike or lockout that threatens the health and safety of seniors.
Earlier Friday, AUPE president Guy Smith said Extendicare is pushing for effective reductions in pay along with reduced sick leave and holiday pay despite no drastic change in the company's bottom line.
"We believe that Extendicare has acted in an irresponsible manner," said Smith.
"They have created this strike (situation) in an effort to maximize their profits at the expense of quality patient care."
The strike was to have begun Monday at 11 a.m. at two Extendicare facilities in Edmonton, two in Calgary and homes in Red Deer, Mayerthorpe, Lethbridge and Athabasca.
Seven of the facilities are long-term care homes, which provide around-the-clock nursing and living care for seniors too ill or frail to care for themselves.
The Fairmont Park facility in Lethbridge provides supportive living care.
Smith stressed that even in a strike situation, his staff would leave the picket line if asked to assist a senior in emergency "life and limb" situations.
The union took strike action after mediated talks with Extendicare broke down. AUPE said Extendicare bailed out on scheduled mediation talks set for two days this week, leaving workers with little choice.
A spokesman for Extendicare, based in Markham, Ont., welcomed the government's move.
"One of the reasons why we were requesting an extension of the mediation that we had scheduled for (Friday), is this is essentially an opportunity for us to do what we wanted to do, analyze the funding summaries and be able to figure out where we go," said Rick Luneburg, vice-president of western operations for Extendicare.
Luneburg wouldn't comment on negotiations or the union's issues.
"Our hope is to always find a mutual solution and we've had a long history of being able to work with AUPE and have been able to come to agreements historically, and I'm quite confident we'll be able to do that again."
Workers have been without a contract since the end of last year and recently voted overwhelmingly at all eight centres to take strike action as necessary. The lowest pro-strike vote was 93 per cent.
Extendicare has 14 facilities in Alberta and receives funding under contract to Alberta Health Services. The other six homes are not represented by AUPE.
Smith said staff already earn about 20 per cent less than their counterparts in public facilities. He says many are women who are new to Canada and are working part time.
"They're licensed practical nurses, health-care aides (and) general support staff in dietary and housekeeping," he said.
"They basically run these facilities every single day and make sure everyone is protected."
Extendicare is a for-profit provider with 247 care homes across North America, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
Smith urged Health Minister Fred Horne to investigate what Smith said is a trend of the province contracting private companies to provide care to seniors. The union leader wants Horne to ensure patient safety and quality of life are not jeopardized.
— With files from CHED
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