Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia paramedics get new contract 5 years after old deal ran out

The contract is retroactive to 2015, and goes until Oct. 31, 2023. It includes wage increases each year.

Deal, which goes until 2023, finalized following an arbitrator's award

The union representing paramedics and the Nova Scotia government finalized a new contract in February following an arbitrators award. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Nova Scotia's paramedics have a new contract.

The International Union of Operating Engineers local 727, represents paramedics, it and Emergency Medical Care Inc. reached the deal, with the help of an arbitrator, in February. It had previously not been announced. The paramedics had been without a contract since 2015. The new deal is retroactive to Nov. 1, 2015, and runs until Oct. 31, 2023.

Terry Chapman, the union's business agent and chief negotiator, said the decision to delay reaching a deal was largely his. When the government proclaimed Bill 148, which lays out the terms for a legislated wage pattern for public sector workers and prevents an arbitrator from exceeding those terms, Chapman said he saw no benefit for his union to rush ahead with contract talks.

With the timelines of that bill behind them, Chapman said the union believed they had a better shot at true collective bargaining. The two sides settled what they could at the table and in January agreed to have the remaining issues decided by an arbitrator.

Looking to dampen effect of Bill 148

Chapman said he pushed more than a dozen times in recent years during negotiations to use arbitration.

"I was surprised that [the employer agreed], but I could kind of see it coming because the only other way out was for the members to lose their mind," he said.

The terms of the deal initially follow the wage pattern established in Bill 148, legislation multiple unions are now challenging in court. The rest of the deal is as follows:

  • 1.5 per cent wage increase on Nov. 1, 2019.
  • 0.5 per cent increase on Oct. 31, 2020.
  • 1.5 per cent increase on Nov. 1, 2020.
  • 0.5 per cent increase on Oct. 31, 2021.
  • Subsequent increases on Nov. 1 of 2021 and 2022 will be the higher of either 1.5 per cent or the general increase for the Nova Scotia health-care bargaining unit in each of those years.

The arbitrator's award also removed the bottom pay step and added a new top step for paramedics' wage scale, retroactive to Nov. 1, 2019. The new top step is three per cent higher than where things previously topped out. 

Mike Nickerson, the union's business manager, said they were hoping to secure medical benefits for workers in retirement, either due to injury or illness or upon regular retirement, but were unsuccessful.

Letting the system work

Nickerson said better compensation is a big part of addressing recruitment and retention issues in the profession. There have been concerns the level of pay does not reflect what paramedics deal with in the course of a shift and their level of training, he said.

"They're some of the very highest trained paramedics in North America, not just Canada."

In recent years, Premier Stephen McNeil and Labour Relations Minister Mark Furey have talked about their distaste for allowing an arbitrator to determine what the province can or cannot afford to pay. Chapman said February's outcome proves the collective bargaining process can work, despite the recent track record of the government's approach to labour relations.

"We, as unions, have found that it's so much easier for the government to put a pen in their hand and stop us from our permissible right to free collective bargaining than it is to do what's right and take the chance."

Although the government directs the employer's mandate and funds the agreement, it was not at the bargaining table. A spokesperson for the province said, in this case, arbitration was the best way forward.

"Paramedics had been without a contract and in active negotiations for several years, and both parties had narrowed the issues in dispute to just a few," Sarah Levy MacLeod said in a statement.

Terry Chapman is the business agent and chief negotiator for the union representing Nova Scotia's paramedics. (CBC)

With a new contract now in place, Nickerson and Chapman said the focus will shift to addressing workplace concerns for paramedics.

The union and its members have become increasingly vocal in recent years about the challenges they're facing and the need for more support as well as better coordination within the health-care system at large.

Some of the problems that existed before COVID-19, such as ambulance offload delays, people having to miss meals, shifts running late and not enough people available to work, are re-emerging, said Chapman. The union wants to work with the employer to address the root causes of those problems.