The head of a union representing 3,600 hospital workers in Halifax says she is postponing a strike deadline until Thursday as negotiations continue.
Joan Jessome posted a message on the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union website late Tuesday.
Ms. Jessome said she postponed any work stoppage for the safety of patients and members while the two sides continue talking.
“We felt that it was too dangerous both for patients and the staff to call a strike throughout the night and we had not had an opportunity to speak to our members since this started,” she said after mediation ended for the night at around 9 p.m.
“To ask them to go out on strike without any information that's happened at the mediation table, we didn't feel was fair. So we made the decision to postpone it for a day.”
She set a new deadline of 7 a.m. Thursday.
The union had said it could set up picket lines as early as Wednesday morning, a move that would have forced the cancellation of elective surgeries and outpatient services.
Ms. Jessome said talks were due to resume at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and that she planned to meet with the union membership at 7 p.m. She said she didn't know yet if she would be able to present them with an offer to vote on.
“We certainly are going to take ballot boxes and ballots with us in the event that we have something to vote on,” she said.
The NDP government resisted calls Tuesday to intervene in the dispute, saying bargaining should be allowed to run its course between the union and health board management.
“The parties are at the table and I'm not going to insert myself into this process in any way,” Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said.
“I remain hopeful that a settlement can be reached at the table.”
Officials at the Capital District Health Authority said operations at Halifax-area hospitals had already “slowed down” Tuesday in anticipation of a possible strike.
Capital Health CEO Chris Power said surgeries were already being postponed, adding that about 130 elective surgeries would be delayed daily in the event of a strike.
Close to 200 beds have been closed and nearly 2,000 outpatient appointments have been cancelled so far, she said. But emergency rooms will remain open under an agreement with the union.
A strike could also affect appointments for patients elsewhere in Atlantic Canada. Some out-of-province patients require the services of Capital Health in areas such as heart and transplant surgeries, Power said.
Prince Edward Island's Crown corporation responsible for health care said a strike could affect appointments and treatments for about 30 residents in that province daily.
Jamie MacDonald, acting executive director of medical affairs for Health PEI, said the patients travel to Nova Scotia to receive medical treatment that isn't available in their home province.
She said if a strike were to drag on, officials would examine the possibility of having more procedures done in New Brunswick.
Ms. Jessome said there had been some movement under a government-appointed mediator.
The union represents workers in a range of jobs, including nurses, occupational therapists, medical lab technicians and social workers. Before the postponement, they were in a legal strike position as of 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
Wages are the main issue in the contract dispute. The workers want a 5.1 per cent raise in the first year to match an arbitrator's award for registered nurses, and cost-of-living increases for the remaining years of a three-year contract.
Capital Health had offered an annual one per cent pay increase for three years.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie called on the government to look at legislation in order to prevent patient disruptions and a potential settlement that he said could prove costly to taxpayers.
“I would certainly support any reasonable bill to keep the hospitals open, to make sure that the work goes on,” Mr. Baillie said. “We don't need more surgeries cancelled.”
Nova Scotia does not have essential services legislation preventing strikes in the health care sector.