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Strike halts tests, scans in hospitals across Vancouver Island today

Dec 07 2012

More than 500 medical imaging procedures slated across Vancouver Island today have been cancelled as X-ray and CT scan specialists in B.C. take rotating strike action to press for a new contract.

The cancellations, classed as non-urgent, include 188 procedures scheduled for Victoria General and Royal Jubilee hospitals; keeping cancer and children's cases on the schedule is a priority, said VIHA spokeswoman Suzanne Germain. "Overall, patients have been very understanding," she said.

Today is the second day of essential services staffing across B.C., with more rotating strikes expected for Monday. No picket lines are planned.

On Thursday, about 60 per cent of pharmacy staff in hospitals, whose wages have been frozen since 2009, booked off work to demonstrate their discontent with the Health Employers Association of B.C. The strike closed Royal Jubilee's retail pharmacy.

The Health Sciences Association of B.C is the lead union in the bargaining association that represents more than 16,000 workers, including MRI operators, dietitians and lab personnel. It says negotiations had gone nowhere since February, until mediator Vince Ready was called in this week.

Members of the Health Sciences Association provide clinical, diagnostic and rehabilitation services in hospitals and communities.

"It's difficult for our members to go on strike," said Miriam Sobrino, communications director for the association. "The objective is to put pressure on the employer. ... We have their attention now."

Employers had asked the union not to take strike action while Ready is engaged, said employers association president Michael Marchbank. "But they chose not to follow that course." Marchbank said he did not want to negotiate in the media, and declined to provide details of negotiation positions.

The most recent offer was a one per cent wage increase effective Jan. 1, 2013 with a further two per cent on April 1, the union said.

Currently, a radiation technologist earns $28.27 to $40.44 an hour, while a pharmacist earns $40 to almost $53 an hour.

An employer's insistence that members pay 25 per cent of their benefits package fees - they now do not contribute - was called "insulting," by Bill Hadden, co-chief union steward at Victoria General. He said that other health professions, including nurses and medical residents, settled without clawbacks.

B.C. is the only province to pay 100 per cent of premiums, the employers association says. Including benefits, the average compensation for a hospital pharmacist is $104,000.

Workers voted 90 per cent in favour of a strike. "After nine months at the bargaining table, it took strike action and the involvement of mediator Vince Ready to get the government to come to the table and start to focus on getting to a new contract," Health Sciences Association president Reid Johnson said in statement.

MRIs, CTs, X-rays, ultrasounds and mammography are among the procedures cancelled and rebooked as a result of the strike. Twenty operating room procedures at Vancouver Island Health Authority hospitals were cancelled because they require imaging, Germain said. She stressed the cancelled appointments would not go to the bottom of waiting lists and would be rescheduled as quickly as possible.

The rotating strikes are not over. "We have just advised employers that next in the rotation is lab services on Monday," Sobrino said. Laboratory staff will be reduced to essential services levels at midnight Sunday.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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