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Workers’ Fight to Defend the Right to Health Care and Education
Quebec Paramedics Demand an End to Untenable Conditions
Workers’ Forum is publishing below a recent interview with Jean Gagnon, the representative of the pre-hospital sector of the Health and Social Services Federation (FSSS-CSN). The 3,500 FSSS paramedics have been on strike since last summer because of untenable working conditions. During their strike, they continue to provide all services to the population but refuse to perform administrative tasks. They recently decided to step up the fight for their rights in the coming weeks.
Workers’ Forum: Where are you now in your struggle for the renewal of your collective agreements and for negotiated conditions that workers find acceptable?
Jean Gagnon: We are currently negotiating for the renewal of all of our paramedics’ collective agreements that expired on March 31, 2020. Currently, we have agreements on non-monetary issues with all employer associations, that is the private companies, cooperatives, NPOs (non-profit organizations) and Urgences-santé, which is a state enterprise. These are not tentative agreements yet. They will be once we’ve completed negotiations at the national level as well regarding monetary and non-monetary issues. At the national level, the main issues are wages, workload for our hourly workers and around-the-clock on-call schedules.
WF: What are you trying to achieve at this time?
JG: Basically, we are asking for a wage catch-up, a reduction in workload so as to be able to finish on time and eat on time, and an end to around-the-clock on-call schedules where people are available 24 hours a day for seven days, followed by seven days off.
These negotiations are at a standstill and we have now requested that a conciliator intervene. We’re still on strike and at the end of November, we equipped ourselves with a new mandate to stop and restart our strikes at any time, but this time with an upgrade in our strike actions. In the coming weeks, we’ll be implementing a mobilization and communications plan to enhance our course of action to put more pressure behind our demands.
As far as wages are concerned, we’re in need of serious catch-up. We’re paid less than nurses, police officers or firefighters, yet when we arrive at the scene of an accident, we’re responsible for taking care of patients under emergency conditions. We estimate that we need a minimum wage catch-up of $6 per hour.
We have a serious workforce retention problem. We are short of people. This creates a constant problem of work overload. In Montreal, for example, the employer sets in motion action plans regularly, whereby you can’t finish your shift on time and you cannot have lunch on time. They force us to do this because of calls at the end of shifts. Not eating on time and not finishing on time because you’re saving a life is fine. But to have these obligations imposed on you because there are always calls coming in, which often are not urgent, doesn’t make sense.
When there’s no gas left in the ambulance, even if there’s an emergency call, we’ll go and put gas, as we’re not going to let the ambulance run out of fuel. We go on high-risk calls, where we administer medication, we’re in dangerous situations, accidents, where we haven’t eaten and are working beyond our shift. There has to be a limit at some point. It has to stop. There are even places in the province where they have exhausted the recall lists and there are ambulance closures, service breakdowns because we’re short of people. At some point, our people are exhausted from working all this overtime, they’re exasperated with these untenable conditions.
Now, to be a paramedic, you need a college degree. We have people who after one year of work drop out, go to university and get a degree to do something else. Nowadays, to be selected as a paramedic is very difficult. These people have the ability to succeed in university.
Governments have offered incentives to health care workers to keep them in the workforce but nothing to us.
As far as around-the-clock on-call schedules are concerned, we’re asking that they be eliminated, except in cases where you have too long a distance to travel to work, and there are not many calls. Basically, this only applies in parks where we have ambulances far away from populated areas. If you are in La Vérendrye Park, for example, and you’re two hours away from where the ambulance is, and the ambulance goes out once a week, it’s reasonable to put that kind of schedule in place because you’re not going to have to be on the road every day. For such schedules, we want the conditions improved so that the on-call schedule is made shorter.
Apart from these cases, those kinds of shift schedules should be eliminated. Amongst other things, they cause serious workload problems. Depending on the number of calls you have and the number of hours between each call, you may end up getting no sleep. Lack of sleep is similar to being drunk. During that time, our people may have to administer medication and provide care to the patient. After 16 hours of work, we have to take our people off the road, so that they can get eight hours of sleep.
As you can see, our three main demands are all connected. They form a whole to change the situation, which is not sustainable.
(Workers’ Forum, posted February 17, 2022. Photo: FSSS-CSN)