Ambulance NB staff shortages will continue, says union president

The president of the union that represents Ambulance NB paramedics says staffing shortages across the province are nothing new — and there's no end in sight.

'If paramedics are calling in sick, they're sick,' says Greg McConaghy

Greg McConaghy, paramedic and president of CUPE Local 4848 said staff shortages with Ambulance New Brunswick are happening all over the province. (CBC)

The president of the union that represents Ambulance NB paramedics says staffing shortages across the province are nothing new — and there's no end in sight. 

Greg McConaghy of CUPE Local 4848 said what happened last weekend in Saint John will happen again as the province continues to try to operate an ambulance system with too many vacant positions.

Medavie Health Services spokesperson Tim Winchester confirmed five paramedics scheduled to work on Aug. 4 called in sick. Staffing was found to operate three ambulances in the city and two ambulances were brought in from outside regions. 

In a statement, Health Minister Benoit Bourque confirmed there were out of service ambulance units on Saturday and Sunday of the New Brunswick Day long weekend. 

"The units being out of service is unfortunate and is related to staffing issues," reads the statement. "Fortunately, there were no critical issues that arose during this time." 

Winchester said Ambulance NB put in place dynamic deployment, something they do every day to ensure coverage of shifts. 

Rural versus urban

McConaghy said it is something that happens all too often all across the province, leaving rural areas uncovered.

He said his membership finds the practice unacceptable.  

"It's two-tiered health care, for one thing. It's almost like it's rural versus urban." 

Another thing McConaghy said is happening too often is staff being offered double time to work, a practice that violates the union's collective agreement. 

McConaghy said the province has to do more to help reduce staffing shortages and burnout among paramedics. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

With more than 110 job postings open for paramedics as well as vacations, sick leave, and more to cover, McConaghy said paramedics are feeling the effects of working overtime.

"The membership is getting burned out. If paramedics are calling in sick, they're sick," he said. "Basically what is happening is the government is turning our service into a casual workforce."

No end in sight

McConaghy said retention and recruitment is a big issue with Ambulance NB and he sees no end in sight.

Compounding the problem is the province's plan to add a Rapid Response Unit pilot project in September. The union president said it's a bandaid solution motivated because of the upcoming provincial election.

"What it's doing is taking 15 bilingual paramedics off the ambulances and putting them in these one-person response vehicles that can't take you to the hospital."

McConaghy describes it as "robbing Peter to pay Paul." He said the new program will leave more ambulances unstaffed and will not help the rural areas at all. 

"To me, they're flying day by day right now. It's really upsetting." 

Concrete solutions needed

One thing McConaghy said could help is an arbitrator's ruling that ordered Ambulance NB to be less rigid about its requirements for bilingual paramedics in areas of the province where there's less demand for second-language service.

The province is asking for a judicial review of the order. But for the membership, the recommendation would alleviate the ongoing staffing issues. 

Health Minister Benoit Bourque acknowledged there is a staffing situation with Ambulance NB paramedics, and said it's something the province is working to address.
​Bourque said the province is focused on improving ambulance service in the province and is not hiding from the staffing challenges

"This is a fact we have not and will not hide from," the statement said.

"We recognize that labour market supply challenges cannot be fixed overnight and that ANB is undertaking ongoing efforts in recruitment of paramedics to ensure appropriate staffing levels." 

About the Author

Gail Harding

Web Writer

Gail Harding began her career as a journalist in the newspaper industry before joining CBC as a web writer.