'#systemCRITICAL': Paramedics protest staffing shortage

About 50 paramedics and emergency dispatch personnel marched in Fredericton Tuesday to protest what they describe as a "critical" staffing shortage.

CUPE Local 4848 calls on province, Ambulance NB to improve recruitment and retention

Paramedics say some ambulances are sitting out of service across the province. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

About 50 paramedics and emergency dispatch personnel gathered in Fredericton on Tuesday morning to protest what they describe as a "critical" staffing shortage.

The members of CUPE Local 4848 contend the provincial government and Ambulance New Brunswick aren't doing enough to address recruitment and retention problems.

"We can't seem to keep medics, because they can't get full-time jobs, the money's not that great, so today we're asking for the public's help," president Greg McConaghy told reporters as union members marched from the Fredericton Inn to the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital chanting and carrying signs that read, #systemCRITICAL.

Another 30 paramedics also gathered in Saint John on Tuesday afternoon outside the Ambulance New Brunswick station on City Road.

McConaghy said about 150 jobs are being posted every eight weeks that aren't getting filled.

As part of a lawsuit settlement in December 2017, the province and Ambulance NB were ordered, and agreed, to provide New Brunswickers from both linguistic communities service in the language of their choice.

It's going to come to a crash, it really is.- Greg McConaghy, CUPE Local 4848

That meant approximately every second hiring had to be bilingual. But because there aren't nearly enough bilingual paramedics applying, unilingual ones are being hired on eight-week contracts.

That has resulted in higher wait times in many regions and some communities, such as Nackawic, Harvey and McAdam going uncovered on a daily basis, despite the overtime expected of existing staff, he said.

Burn-out

CUPE Local 4848 president Greg McConaghy says paramedics can't get vacation time and the burnout rate is high. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

Last year, overtime expenses totalled nearly $8 million — an average of 250 hours for each of the approximately 1,000 medics, who are feeling the strain of keeping the system running.

"It's crazy," said McConaghy.

"And the medics, to tell you the truth, we're getting burned out.

"It's going to come to a crash, it really is. … It's horrific."

'Disappointed' by protest

Matt Crossman, vice-president of Ambulance NB, disputes the notion the system is "critical" and said he's "a little disappointed" by CUPE's protest.

"We really worked hard over the last couple of years to make sure to really build that relationship and … we really tried to work together to find a solution."

Crossman ​acknowledged there are places that go uncovered and said there's "no doubt" Ambulance NB has paid a lot of overtime, but contends one of the reasons is that many vacations are being awarded through overtime.

"It's really important our staff get time off, we know it's important for their well-being and health, and that's why we pay overtime — to make sure they get the needed time off."

Matt Crossman, vice-president of Ambulance New Brunswick, said about 70 vacant positions are gradually being filled, thanks largely to new graduates. (CBC)

Not all paramedics can have the popular times off because of the 24/7 staffing requirement, he said, adding fewer vacation requests have been denied this year than previous years.

The service has also had "great success" with recruitment, with 33 new paramedics in January, another 20 or 30 new graduates expected in June and up to 40 more anticipated in December, which should help ease the strain, said Crossman.

"So I'm not really sure why they (CUPE) chose this avenue."

'Challenges cannot be fixed overnight'

The provincial government recognizes that Ambulance New Brunswick has "experienced challenges" in recruiting paramedics, said Health Minister Benoît Bourque.

"Unfortunately these challenges cannot be fixed overnight, however I am confident that the work ANB is doing and the steps we have taken will help address this issue going forward," he said in an emailed statement.

Bourque cited as an example a new paramedic training course offered since last June at any one of the five Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick campuses at a time, depending on where it is most needed.

"Paramedics are the backbone of our province's emergency health system and we appreciate their patience and dedication while we work to ensure that our ambulance service has the appropriate level of human resources," said Bourque.

The paramedics marched from the Fredericton Inn on Regent Street to the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital on Priestman Street on Tuesday morning. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

The government wants the Court of Queen's Bench to resolve whether Ambulance New Brunswick should weaken its requirement for bilingual paramedics in areas of the province where there's less demand for second-language service.

A labour arbitrator ordered it to do so in April.

But last year, a Court of Queen's Bench judge issued an order that implies it cannot.

McConaghy believes some of the incentives the province used to offer to paramedics, such as bursaries for students and tax credits for those who remained in New Brunswick to work, should be reinstated.

"I've been to government time and time again, I've dealt with the minister of health, time and time again," he said. "All they do is they push us off.

"Our system is critical. Our system is failing."

With files from Catherine Harrop