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Alberta tightening bonus-payment rules after hefty COVID-19 payout to health chief

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Alberta Finance Minister Jason Nixon is seen during a news conference in Calgary on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

EDMONTON — The Alberta government is tightening the rules around employee bonuses in light of the six-figure payout to the chief medical officer of health during COVID-19.

Finance Minister Jason Nixon said the civil service has been directed to review and make changes to the rules to ensure future bonus payments during emergencies go through cabinet for approval.

“The public service should not have the ability to unilaterally approve significant overtime payments of this size,” Nixon said in a statement Thursday.

“The Public Service Commission has been instructed to undergo a full review of the policy to ensure that future overtime payments for emergencies go through cabinet.

“Until the review has been completed and a new policy has been confirmed, all future requests will be brought forward for Treasury Board (headed up by Nixon) to review.”

The CBC, gleaning information from the government's sunshine salary list, reported Monday that Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, received a bonus of almost $228,000 for COVID-19 work in 2021 — the highest such cash benefit payout to any provincial civil servant since the list went public six years ago.

That figure, on top of her regular salary, put Hinshaw's pay at more than $591,000.

The Opposition NDP and public sector unions have called the payout a profound insult to front-line health workers who had to work under COVID-19 while the government attempted to reduce their pay or tried to cut their jobs altogether.

The payout has also aroused the ire of some in the governing United Conservative Party who have long criticized Hinshaw for her role in what they viewed as intrusive and unnecessary health restrictions and vaccine rules during the pandemic.

The finance minister at the time, Travis Toews, is now one of seven candidates running to replace Premier Jason Kenney in a party vote set for Oct. 6.

Toews has said he did not know of the payout and said he would also make changes to ensure cabinet had the final say on such bonuses.

The NDP says Toews had to have known about the payout and contends that he is either lying or didn’t have a firm grasp on the department he was supposed to be running.

“The finance minister needs to know about the finances of the province,” NDP critic Sarah Hoffman told reporters in Edmonton on Thursday.

“I’m not surprised Jason Nixon is trying to come up with lines to backtrack and try to distance himself from the culpability (of) Travis Toews and others sitting around that cabinet table.”

The payout was one of the COVID-19 bonuses paid to 107 employees in management totalling $2.4 million.

Alberta Health, in a statement, said Hinshaw was paid as per a long-standing policy and financial calculation tied to emergencies based on hours worked.

“Given the scale of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, an extraordinary amount of additional work was required by Dr. Hinshaw,” said the statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2022.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press