B.C. makes temporary deal with paramedics in hopes of improving rural staffing
Union says agreement is step in the right direction but not a perfect fix
The provincial government and the union representing paramedics in B.C. have signed a temporary deal around working conditions in an effort to immediately improve staffing in remote communities across the province.
The agreement between B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) and the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. raises "pager pay" given to paramedics who are on call but not actively responding to an emergency from $2/hour to $12/hour.
Under the deal, outlined in a letter to union members, paramedics will also be paid at a double overtime rate for overtime or recall shifts on evenings and weekends.
"What you see in a lot of rural communities is a second ambulance that depends on on-call paramedics," Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday. "This increases the incentive for people to take those on-call shifts, which is important in establishing services there."
The deal took effect Saturday. It's scheduled to stay in place until New Year's Eve or until the province and union reach a more permanent deal in contract negotiations.
Deal helps but doesn't solve problems: union
The agreement replaced two incentives BCEHS offered in June: $100 per shift for paramedics agreeing to either regular on-call shifts or to taking two- to four-week-long placements in rural communities.
Troy Clifford, provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., CUPE Local 873, said paramedics are happy with the temporary deal but see it as a Band-Aid rather than a solution.
"They're happy, obviously. They'll be able to be compensated for the time they're on better than they were before ... but this is not the fix," said Clifford, whose union represents 4,500 paramedics, dispatchers and call-takers.
"That precarious on-call model is not sustainable ... We need to move toward full-time and more sustainable wages and benefits for the whole shift that they're working, whether they're on call or not."
Paramedics have faced a severe staffing crunch over the past two years through the COVID-19 pandemic, drug poisoning crisis, heat dome and other health crises.
Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell agreed the temporary deal was welcome news but said the larger issues still create anxiety in the community.
"Honestly, it's quite terrifying because you don't know when the accident or the incident's going to happen. You can schedule your emergencies. It doesn't work that way — you don't schedule a heart attack. You don't schedule car accidents," he said.
"So, we're always walking on eggshells to make sure that we have enough coverage for people when they have the need."
Clifford said some of the key issues affecting paramedic staffing are wage and benefit disparity with other first responders, declining mental health and wellness and inadequate recruitment and retention models in rural communities.
"These [new] measures go a little bit toward that step forward ... It shows hope that we're working on solutions and acknowledging there is a need to be compensated appropriately," said Clifford.
The Paramedic Association of Canada has previously said ambulance-paramedic services across the country are reporting increases in call volume, decreased staff due to COVID-19 and a greater need for mental health resources.
With files from Joel Ballard