United Nurses of Alberta is 40 years old this year – a success story built on work done by members in their locals and elsewhere.
So it is important that this work on behalf of members continue, a reasonable expectation that is now at risk because of a sudden and unexplained policy shift by the Alberta Health Services Labour Relations Department.
AHS has unexpectedly taken to denying requests for Leaves of Absence (LOA) to do union work in situations where the union work falls during a member’s scheduled day off.
While UNA works to remedy this situation, members active in the union need to be aware of past practice by UNA and its employers, the current situation, and appropriate actions for members when they request a union LOA in such circumstances.
Past practice regarding union LOAs
It is not appropriate for UNA members to do union work on employer time. In addition, it’s important for union activists, like all nurses, to get appropriate rest days when they are not required to work.
Because of this there has been a longstanding practice that union LOA is granted for one of two reasons: either the union activity was taking place during the time leave was needed or during the employee’s time off. In the latter case, the employee needed leave to compensate for lost time off. This is what is referred to as “lieu days.” In neither situation is there any cost to the employer.
This practice, which ensures members have appropriate time off for their health and wellbeing, has been accepted throughout UNA’s 40-year history. UNA believes strongly it is both appropriate and clearly required by negotiated language in our collective agreements.
Under this historical interpretation of our contract language, there are two types of union leaves: mandatory and discretionary.
For UNA Executive Board and negotiating committee members, our collective agreements stipulate that union leave is mandatory and must be granted by the employer.
But for other UNA activists – such as local executive members and members attending provincial meetings or workshops – the employer is not required to grant the leave. However, under the terms of the collective agreement the employer must not unreasonably deny a leave.
UNA recognizes there may be times when it is impossible to grant the leave because the first priority for all of us is to ensure safe care to patients, clients or residents. But if a member requests the leave, the employer must make an effort to grant it. This could include canvassing casuals or full-and part-time regular nurses, float pools, redeployment of other nurses and, if necessary, calling in nurses on overtime.
Unfortunately, for reasons UNA is unaware of, the Alberta Health Services Labour Relations Department has suddenly changed its position on this longstanding and successful practice. AHS now claims UNA business and related travel must take place during the member’s leave time.
Fortunately, most AHS managers are ignoring the employer’s position, allowing traditional “harmonious relationships (to) continue between the Employer and the Employees,” as the preamble to our collective agreement requires. This makes sense, as there is no cost to the employer and all requests for union leave must be signed by UNA President Heather Smith.
However, some managers and LR officials have been insisting on the new official position and denying leave for union business if they become aware the union work is taking place during the employee’s time off.
UNA has filed grievances and is working with AHS to resolve this difference. Despite the best efforts of those involved, however, UNA and AHS have so far been unable to agree on the correct interpretation of the collective agreement. AHS continues to insist that some union work must take place during the employee’s leave time or the LOA will not be granted.
This situation is likely to result in more denials of requests for time off to do union business, more grievances and a more difficult working relationship between UNA and AHS until it can be resolved.
Appropriate actions for UNA members
As a consequence, if you are applying for union leave, we encourage you only to tell the employer you are requesting union leave. Other than the dates, do not provide any further information.
Members are also advised that even on their lieu day they should do some union business – for example, reading a union email for 10 minutes – and record the time.
In the mean time, UNA will continue to work hard to resolve the situation.