Adam Huras – Telegraph Journal – April 15, 2020

Higgs interested in frontline worker pay raise, but needs ‘more details’

OTTAWA • Premier Blaine Higgs says he is interested in any funding from Ottawa that could give essential employees a raise, but says he needs more details on the federal plan to boost the pay of frontline workers.

It comes a day after Higgs said the province’s system isn’t overtaxed like others when asked about the federal government’s willingness to help provinces give temporary pay bumps to workers amid the stress of the front-line fight of the global pandemic.

The comments also come after a flurry of criticism over Higgs’ initial words on Tuesday.“I want to be clear, at no time did I say I wasn’t interested as the ensuing headline suggested,” Higgs said on Wednesday. “We need more details on this program before making any decisions, however I am most interested in any federal funding that could be available to these essential workers.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Tuesday that the feds would send money to the provinces to help pay for wage increases for those on the front lines.

That’s after Quebec decided to give its front-line workers an eight per cent boost to their salaries.

Asked specifically if New Brunswick would do this, Higgs replied on Tuesday that the province isn’t facing the same COVID-19 stresses that other provinces are dealing with.

“At this stage, I would understand why Quebec moved the way they did, and potentially Ontario,” Higgs said. “At this point, we want to make sure that people are able to work their normal shifts, they’re able to do that and have as normal a life as possible.

“We’re in a little different place than other provinces in that regard.”Higgs then told reporters on Wednesday that he would now be interested in the federal help.

He explained that the program was announced “just hours before” he was initially asked about it.

On Wednesday, Trudeau announced that he will now speak to the country’s premiers on Thursday evening about boosting the pay of essential workers who are making under $2,500 a month “like those in our long-term care facilities.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said that the idea of increasing wages for frontline workers was first broached with premiers six days ago in a call last Thursday, where there was interest.

Higgs added that he has not received a lot of detail on “how this program would work or if any New Brunswick workers would qualify.”

“In our nursing homes, our full-time employees make more than this ($2,500) threshold,” he said.

New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions president Sharon Teare said Higgs called her on Wednesday to clarify his comments, but that she still takes issue with his words.

“We haven’t felt the same impact as other provinces? That’s so untrue,” Teare said.“It shouldn’t take a case of COVID-19 within our senior complexes to say we’re impacted.”

Earlier in the day, she said that “workers head to the frontline daily with fear of the unknown and the impact it may have on their loved ones they leave at home.

“When money is offered to keep the essential workers working, why would you show such lack of compassion for those who chose to show up for an extra few dollars?” she said.

Teare also questioned Higgs’ assertion about wages.

“That’s not what my paycheque says,” contending that the average nursing home worker in New Brunswick takes home $1,022 every two weeks, providing Brunswick News a pay stub that shows that figure.

It’s unclear if the federal offer of $2,500 is after tax.She added that in what is a predominantly female sector, many nursing home workers struggle with child care, but chose to continue to show up to work.

“I wish that we didn’t care so much,” she said, noting the federal government program that pays out $2,000 a month to those who now can’t work because they need to take care of loved ones. “We could be safe at home with our families.”

The New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity is also calling on the provincial government to make “significant public investments in caregivers’ wages” warning that “otherwise, the sector might not be able to weather the COVID-19 crisis.”

“The pandemic exacerbates the existing crisis in the caregiving sector,” Frances LeBlanc, chair of the Coalition for Pay Equity said.

“For years, we have systematically undervalued the work of these employees and the pandemic is highlighting how fragile the sector has become, with frankly unattractive wages leading to low recruitment and retention levels.”

Meanwhile, opposition parties in New Brunswick lined up on Wednesday to say the province’s long-term care workers deserve a raise.Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said on Wednesday that he backs a pay increase for long-term care workers.

“Previously, they were over tasked and under resourced and now the absence of volunteers and family members,as well as the whole mental health issue, the stress (of going into work), I’m strongly in favour (of a wage increase),” Vickers said.

Meanwhile, Green Party Leader David Coon said that at the beginning of the pandemic he proposed to Higgs that the government provide a salary increase to care givers.

He added it wasn’t rejected, but it also hasn’t gone ahead.“And now with the federal government offering support he should leap at that,” Coon said.

Coon pledged to again push for increases.

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he will do the same.

“I understand the premier’s point that New Brunswick is going relatively unscathed compared to other parts of the country, but on the flip side, in a state of emergency where government is mandating people to stay home so they don’t get sick, we’re telling essential workers to go out and go to work,” Austin said.

He added that grocery store chains have decided to give their workers a pay increase.

“So, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to be doing the same as a government, especially if the feds are willing to kick in a portion of that increase,” Austin said.