Mixed feelings about new ambulance system
Major changes are coming to the ambulance system – and there’s some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that there are now 270 permanent part-time positions open at ambulance stations throughout the province.
“This is the biggest improvement in staffing that I’ve ever seen,” said Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC – CUPE Local 873. “It’s a big step. But does it go far enough? Probably not. These changes are trying to improve the system, but they will prove problematic for some communities,” he said.
New Denver and Edgewood are examples of communities where the new system falls short. Each of these stations have been allocated one position only. The one job will be a combined unit chief/ community paramedic/scheduled on-call position. All other ambulance workers at these stations will continue to be hired on a casual, on-call basis.
The casual on-call model has been problematic for recruitment and retention of ambulance workers for years. Casual on-call workers have traditionally been paid only $2 per hour to carry the pager, and regular wages when out on a call. At stations with low call volumes like New Denver and Edgewood, casual on-call workers cannot make a living at the ambulance.
This and other problems with the ambulance system prompted the government to begin negotiating this new agreement with the paramedics’ union. While negotiations were going on, an interim agreement was put in place that guaranteed four hours of regular pay for casual on-call ambulance workers. This is called the ‘kilo guarantee,’ and it has gone a long way to addressing the recruitment and retention challenges at rural stations.
But here’s where more bad news comes in. The kilo guarantee has been axed in the new system.
“Losing the kilo guarantee is going to be a challenge for lots of these communities,” said Clifford. “The elimination of the kilo guarantee will affect recruitment and retention, and we warned the government about that. Going back to casual on-call is not an enticing model for recruiting people into those communities. It’s tough to see this.”
On the other hand, Clifford said, this is the first time there have been permanent positions in these communities. He reported there will be 14 permanent positions in the Valley Voice coverage area (Nakusp, Edgewood, Kaslo, New Denver, Winlaw), plus two community paramedic positions that will remain in Nakusp, for a total of 16 permanent positions in our rural area. “That is significant, with wages and benefits,” he pointed out.
He added that four positions are being added in Castlegar and two in Nelson. “Castlegar is going to a full-time ambulance – that’s huge,” he said. “So there are a lot of improvements in the Kootenays and across the province.”
The new jobs are being posted July 2, and will be filled this fall, Clifford said. The new system is on trial until November 1.
“We have until November 1 to determine if it’s a viable model. It’s still a trial. It will be evaluated by the end of the year and might be enhanced.”
Stations in our area that will see an improvement under the new system include Winlaw, Nakusp and Kaslo.
In Winlaw, there will be four positions altogether: one community paramedic/unit chief and three community paramedic/scheduled oncall positions. This is a net increase of three positions.
In Nakusp, there will be four new positions: one unit chief/scheduled on-call and three scheduled oncall positions. The existing two community paramedic positions will remain.
In Kaslo, there will be four positions: two community paramedic/ scheduled on-call positions, one unit chief/scheduled on-call position and one scheduled on-call position.
Clifford says the union also has some concerns with the combined community paramedic/scheduled on-call positions. Community paramedics visit patients at their homes and do community outreach work. On-call duties could be disruptive to this work. “We’re still trying to figure out what that would look like and how it will ultimately play out,” he said.
Another issue is that the new positions will require a proper selection process, so people will have to apply for the jobs they may have held for years. “They have to apply for their jobs and might not get them,” Clifford said. “It’s not the best situation for people who have been doing the job for a long time, but it’s a consistent process.”
Despite the shortcomings of the new system, Clifford believes it’s a step in the right direction. “The current government put the funding behind these initiatives and I think it’s a good thing. The government is very concerned about our recruitment and retention challenges and I’m really encouraged about the support we’ve had. But we’re working on changing the model. We want to see more coverage. We’ve been lobbying for changes to address challenges with recruitment and retention. $2/hour doesn’t cut it. It’s a big problem, but I think we can get there.”