Unionized paramedics protest employer's bilingual service plan
Employees cite unfair treatment in new scheduling system
About 50 people rallied at the organization's Fredericton office, with similar numbers showing up in the other two cities.
That's a huge issue for our casual and part-time employees.- Trent Piercy
They carried signs saying they're not being treated equally because of a new scheduling system, which was set up as a response to complaints about Ambulance New Brunswick not meeting its legal requirements to serve patients in the language of their choice.
"I understand there's an obligation by the province to provide services in both official languages," said Trent Piercy, secretary with the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 4848.
"But what about the rights of a unilingual francophone or anglophone employee who lives in these communities who needs to make a living and provide for their families?"
Until last week, part-time and casual employees were "getting equal offers of work" regardless of their language abilities, Piercy said.
New system in place
But under the new system, Ambulance New Brunswick calls bilingual part-time or casual employees first. Then it calls in full-time bilingual staff on overtime. Only when it can't find anyone else does it resort to unilingual employees.
"That's a huge issue for our casual and part-time employees," Piercy said.
Ambulance New Brunswick, which provides paramedic services to the provincial government, aims to have at least one bilingual parademic in every crew on duty.
"We're doing our best to do the right thing for our patients and our employees, while respecting our legal obligation," director of operations Yves Bourque said in a written statement. "Ultimately, we are here to help patients in New Brunswick when they need it most and we would never do anything to compromise care."
Bourque said the new scheduling procedure "helps ensure a bilingual capacity on our ambulances."
The new plan came after a series of complaints from francophones who weren't able to receive care in their language.
Complaint and lawsuit filed
After one such incident in 2013, Danny Sonier and his wife Murielle filed a complaint with the official languages commissioner, who sided with them. They also filed a civil lawsuit.
In that lawsuit, Ambulance New Brunswick acknowledged its legal obligations. "They agree there's been a violation of the language rights," says Universite de Moncton law professor Michel Doucet, who is representing the Soniers.
"They have the obligation to provide these services in both official languages everywhere in New Brunswick."
CEO Matt Crossman repeated that acknowledgement before a committee of MLAs in February.
He says Ambulance New Brunswick should "think outside the box" about whether some kind of "translation device" could be used.
"There are other avenues that haven't been explored enough beyond the taking the rights that we had a week ago for shift offers," he said.
Recruitment, retraining ongoing
Bourque said in his written statement that Ambulance New Brunswick is focusing "on helping current unilingual staff become bilingual, recruiting more paramedics who are bilingual and continuously reinforcing the importance of making the active offer to every patient, every time."
In the Sonier lawsuit, Doucet says the only issues to be decided by the court is what remedy the couple is entitled to and whether Ambulance New Brunswick's plan to comply with the law is enough.
CUPE "could ask for intervenor status and put their arguments before the court," he said.
Piercy said about 35 to 40 per cent of paramedics are bilingual, but that's not enough to have at least one on each crew.
He said Ambulance New Brunswick has been forced to hire two Quebec paramedics to fill gaps. Those two employees are being given time to ramp up their paramedic skills to meet New Brunswick requirements, but CUPE members here aren't being given the same time to learn a second language.
Bourque said those two employees will be fully certified for Ambulance New Brunswick's requirements "in the coming weeks" and in the meantime, the other paramedic in the two-person crew ensures it can provide full care.