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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shakes hands with Travis Toews, Minister of Finance, after being sworn into office in Edmonton on April 30, 2019.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Nurses are indispensable, whether they’re administering flu shots, assisting in surgeries or enduring your grouchy uncle as he complains, again, about his IV being changed. In the pediatric unit, my cousin has looked after newborns in intensive care for 16 straight hours without a break, because there wasn’t a colleague free to relieve her. Few professions are nearly as honourable as nursing – or as undervalued.

Nurses help us when we’re at our weakest, and least in control of our bodily fluids. That should be a reason that they’re lionized. But in a society that does its best to deny sickness and mortality, it usually means averting our eyes from their essential work, as well as their necessity and worth. Witness the Alberta government’s decision to cut 500 nurses over the next three years, and roll back salaries for those who keep their jobs. In a province where the number of seniors is set to double by 2046, that certainly isn’t in the best interest of the public.

During his election campaign, Premier Jason Kenney promised not to cut the health-care budget, and last Friday said that pledge holds true despite the planned reduction in nurses. The goal is to shed nurses through attrition, by not replacing workers who retire or resign. The UCP also plans to save health-care money by switching certain patients to similar, cheaper alternatives to their current medications.

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Alberta still has no provincial sales tax, which is partly why its financial health is so vulnerable to fossil-fuel busts and booms. Austerity is never popular, but it might be justified if everyone had to pare back equally. That’s not the case here. Just months before announcing these cuts, the UCP began lowering its corporate tax rate, which will go from 12 per cent to 8 per cent over the next four years.

Oil and gas companies have already seen the financial rewards. Imperial Oil has credited the cut for a $662-million benefit, while Cenovus Energy cited it as the cause of a $658-million decrease in income-tax liability and Husky listed it as the reason behind $233-million in tax recoveries. According to Bloomberg, ExxonMobil credited the tax cut for a US$500-million boost in profits, while Chevron Corp. noted a US$180-million tax benefit.

And yet, Matt Wolf, Mr. Kenney’s executive director of issues management, called out the province’s 513 registered nurses who earned “more than $129,800” in 2018. That was on Twitter last week, as he quoted a Calgary Herald column written by former Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith.

In it, she decried the number of casual and part-time registered nurses in the province, and the overtime pay that “allows them to make full-time pay working part-time hours.” This is because union agreements guarantee nurses overtime wages if they’re given shifts on short notice, even for fewer than 40 hours of work a week.

Putting aside that the chief executive of Husky made $3.2-million in salary and bonuses last year, $129,800 is good money, for sure. Ms. Smith doesn’t offer proof that those particular workers are clocking 20-hour weeks while making overtime, and considering the juggling of child care, elder care and life that shift work requires, that wouldn’t necessarily be unjustified.

It’s quite possible that those 513 nurses, like the ones I know, earned it by working four straight days of 12-plus hour shifts, which would mean they absolutely deserve it. (And that’s assuming the column’s math is correct, as it was questioned by United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith, who wrote that it overstated the maximum hourly salary by about $9 – a difference of $20,000 a year.)

More importantly, the nursing advocate pointed out that the way to reduce overtime is to hire more full-time nurses, which would be good for everyone. Casual and part-time workers would gain scheduling stability. Employers and patients could be more confident in a well-rested, focused work force, which is a crucial issue across the country.

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Quebec nurses are organizing against mandatory overtime. In Prince Edward Island, a nursing shortage has reached crisis level. And after a patient died in an overcrowded Saskatchewan emergency room earlier this month, Tracy Zambory of that province’s nurses union tried to draw attention to systemic understaffing in a province with a “crystal meth problem,” where health-care workers are “burned out.”

If anything, this country needs more nurses, and to give them all a raise. Imagine that for a largely female work force, doing the icky, essential work the rest of us try not to think about.

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