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BC Paramedics’ Fight for Solutions to Province-wide Staff Shortages
After years of underfunding, all aspects of health care in BC, including ambulance services, have reached a breaking point with the added impact of the pandemic, the summer heat dome and wildfires, November’s storms and flooding, and now the community spread of Omicron. Media report that in the BC Lower Mainland on the weekend of January 8-9 up to 50 of 120 ambulances were out of service because workers were absent due to illness.
Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC, told the CBC that the paramedic shortage is affecting the entire province. “We’ve already been working in an already challenged and stressed system and then you add the additional staffing issues because of community exposures to Omicron and COVID,” he said.
Outside of the Lower Mainland, he said, “[a] lot of communities are down to one ambulance or no ambulances, so they have to be covered by another community. That’s proven to be problematic obviously.” Since summer, he said, 30 per cent of paramedic positions on average have been unfilled. Those who remain, both paramedics and dispatchers, “are really fatigued and tired and that’s causing psychological injuries.”
A shortage of paramedics is not a new problem. Paramedics have been fighting for many years for improved wages and working conditions to address the recruitment and retention problem in the service. Wages lag behind those paid to comparable workers in the health care system and to other first responders, such as firefighters.
One of the most significant problems is the on-call system, which makes hiring new workers very difficult. Paramedics generally start as on-call. On-call workers are paid $2.00 an hour and are only paid a regular hourly wage when they are called to attend to an emergency. While this is particularly problematic in smaller communities because of the unpredictable and infrequent nature of emergencies, it also impacts larger communities. Workers commit to long shifts and are paid $2.00 an hour for the whole shift, unless they are needed for an emergency call. Consequently many leave to find more reliable income.
Clifford explained that this has really affected recruiting into the professions, particularly when they compete with other health care disciplines, public safety, and industry. “This is especially true when you talk about the north and areas surrounding Prince George where there is lots of industry recruiting paramedics and paying them well for it…When you have an on-call model that relies on part-time precarious work depending on when they are available, you can’t hold them to that status so the end result is those ambulances are out of service,” he said.
Staff shortages also impact the dispatch centres, causing delays in answering 911 calls with appropriate services to attend to emergencies. Clifford pointed out that a health care system that defaults to 911, rather than providing appropriate care for people in crisis who have addictions and mental health issues, is problematic and serves neither patients nor paramedics.
BC ambulance paramedics have been putting forward solutions to the staffing crisis since long before the pandemic. The long-term solution is clearly to hire more workers. That requires a change to the on-call model, support for the well-being of paramedics and dispatchers, and a guarantee of wages and benefits that are closer to those of other first responders. As well, appropriate health care must be provided for patients whose needs are not best served in the emergency system.
(Workers’ Forum, posted January 28, 2022)