Nova Scotia paramedics want better pay and they want it now
'There's only one thing that's going to solve this right away and that's called money,' union says
The union that represents paramedics in Nova Scotia wants the provincial government to give its members what it handed continuing care assistants last February — an immediate and substantial raise.
Kevin MacMullin, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers, told a legislature committee Tuesday that a salary increase is needed to retain paramedics who are leaving the province because of low wages.
"There's only one thing that's going to solve this right away and that's called money," MacMullin told members of the health committee. "We have to spend that money.
"How are you going to keep people if you don't pay them appropriately? You're not. How are you going to attract people if you don't pay them appropriately? You are not."
The union has been before legislature committees multiple times since 2019 to talk about the problems plaguing the system.
'Our paramedics are struggling'
"This is now the third time we have stood in front of a government committee to beg for change," said MacMullin. "That's three years of repeated pleas.
"Our paramedics are struggling and it's only getting worse. How much longer are we going to leave our pre-hospital care system to crumble?"
The union has long complained on behalf of its membership about forced overtime, missed meals and long offload times at hospitals.
Last February, Tim Houston's government gave the 6,700 publicly funded CCAs an immediate 23 per cent wage increase as a way to retain those workers and to entice others into the profession.
It seems to have worked because enrolment in training to become a continuing care assistant has increased.
So far, 910 people have registered to start CCA training programs this fall — more than triple the enrolment the year before.
In an interview outside the legislative chamber after the meeting, MacMullin said experienced paramedics were quitting their jobs for higher paying work elsewhere.
'Losing people every month'
He said 13 paramedics quit last month alone, a figure confirmed by the employer, Emergency Medical Care.
"We're losing people every month," said MacMullin. "On a daily basis I get calls from paramedics and they're saying they just can't do it any more."
He said rising costs have exacerbated the problem. "Since January I think we've lost approximately 30 paramedics."
MacMullin said paramedics in Nova Scotia are the lowest paid in the country, earning between $55,000 to $83,000 a year. That's about $10,000 less than elsewhere, according to the union leader.
There are roughly 1,200 paramedics working for EMC Inc., the company contracted by the province to run the ambulance service.
A statement released from Remo Zaccagna, communications specialist for the company, said there were 34 paramedic resignations and retirements from January to April. During the same period, 40 paramedics were hired.
Hundreds off work
According to Charbel Daniel, EMC executive director of provincial operations, 200 to 250 paramedics are off every day, either sick or are on medical leave for physical or mental illnesses.
Despite those staffing challenges, along with longer than ideal response and offload times, associate deputy health minister Craig Beaton told the committee that service is improving as a result of the decision to handle patient transfers and emergency responses in separate and distinct ways.
He told the committee patient transfers now make up about one-third of the work of paramedics.
"We're starting to see some real impacts there, which is beneficial for the system," Beaton said after the meeting.
He said it was also making response times quicker.
"Nobody wants to hear about anybody's loved one that has to wait an exorbitant amount of time," he said.
Average offload time 82 minutes
Daniel said changes taking place June 1 would also help. In two weeks, paramedics will be allowed to leave some of their least ill patients in emergency rooms rather than having to wait to hand them over to the care of an ER doctor.
EMC has also come up with a way to ensure that paramedics close to the end of their shifts aren't forced to work overtime.
According to Health Department spokesperson Marla MacInnis the current average hospital offload time in Nova Scotia is 82 minutes.