Province rejects separate bargaining unit for paramedics

Some paramedics in Alberta are disappointed they won't get their own bargaining unit when the province takes over all ground ambulance services next month.

Some paramedics in Alberta are disappointed they won't get their own bargaining unit when the province takes over all ground ambulance services next month.

Paramedics will be integrated into paramedical professional or technical services when Alberta Health Services takes over ambulance costs and operations from municipalities on April 1, the province ruled on Wednesday.

Right now, ambulance employees are represented by either the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta or are not unionized.

Paramedics under CUPE had held a public campaign that included TV ads and news conferences to advocate for a separate bargaining unit rather than a merger with other health-care workers.

Representatives had argued that Emergency Medical Services (EMS) staff required a separate unit because their concerns over safety and working conditions are distinctly different from those of other health care workers.

"They will be merged … with other health-care workers and we have real concern, grave concern actually, that they're no longer being treated as emergency personnel but just as other health care workers," said D'Arcy Lanovaz, president of CUPE Alberta, on Wednesday.

Status quo best serves Albertans: province

The province said it rejected the idea of a fifth bargaining unit for unionized health care workers to ensure a smooth transition process, pointing to pilot projects in the Peace Country and Palliser health regions that successfully integrated EMS into existing bargaining units.

"Following considerable discussion, maintaining the current structure is clearly the most inclusive," said Minister of Employment and Immigration Hector Goudreau in a statement. "I'm confident this best serves Albertans and our valued paramedics."

The existing four health care bargaining units are:

  • Nursing
  • Auxiliary nursing
  • Paramedical professional or technical services
  • General support services

"With this decision, a majority of EMS personnel across Alberta will now have a unified voice, both in the field and at the bargaining table," said Elisabeth Ballermann, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which currently represents paramedical professional or technical services.

Union worries pension plan will be gutted

But CUPE believes lumping paramedics in with other workers will affect their ability to retire early, as fire and police personnel do, and hurt their pensions.

"It took a long time, but paramedics recently won a pension plan that treats us like firefighters and police, allowing us to retire early," said Rick Fraser, president of CUPE Local 3421, which represents two-thirds of the province's paramedics.

"We've been told repeatedly by government authorities that when the transfer happens, we will no longer be emergency personnel but rather health care workers. In other words, our pension is gutted."

Lanovaz said the union plans to fight the decision either through the Alberta Labour Relations Board or the courts.

Alberta's ambulance system currently comprises 500 ambulances and about 3,000 workers — including about 1,200 paramedics.