Workers Speak Out About Their Concerns
Quebec Paramedics Deserve Respect
– Interview with Jean Gagnon, Pre-Hospital Sector Representative, Health and Social Services’ Federation, Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) –
Renewal Update: What are the latest developments in the struggle of paramedics in defence of their rights and in providing a service to the population?
Jean Gagnon: There have been no developments for several months. We’re still waiting for the Ministry of Health to respect the commitments it made earlier. [Commitments made in 2017, at the time of the signing of agreements with CSN paramedics – RU Note].
If we recall, the deputy minister at the time assured us that we would be provided yearly data on ambulance occupancy rates. In the case of the hourly schedules, once certain thresholds established by the Ministry were reached, more service hours were to be added.
There was also a commitment to eliminate the on-call schedules, in other words to turn them into hourly schedules, once the thresholds set by the Ministry had been reached. However, there has been no development on that issue. The Ministry is not honouring its commitments.
We were told recently that there could be a reform of Quebec’s ambulance system. This is a reform that was ordered following a report by Minister Hébert. [A 2013 report by Réjean Hébert, Minister of Health under the PQ government – RU Note]. We’ve known for years that there was going to be a reform, but even if one is on the horizon, and even if it comes very soon, nothing justifies the government not respecting its commitments, as the additional vehicles are needed on the road. If the paramedics’ field of practice is to be expanded and we are to be able to respond to more diverse calls, it will not come from adding more on-call schedules. This much must be understood.
RU: Can you explain what on-call schedules are and the problems they cause?
JG: On-call schedules began some 30 years ago, at a time when the ambulance system was just being developed. Paramedics on an on-call schedule are on duty 24 hours a day for seven days, after which they have seven days off.
In places such as the road to La Manic, where you are 250 kilometres away from civilization and the number of calls you receive is not necessarily very high, an on-call schedule is viable. But what we are talking about are areas where the population is dense, the frequency of calls very high, and where, on a recurring basis, teams must be taken off the road because they have been working for over 16 hours straight. Paramedics become very tired and that is when driving and patient care can be compromised. Those on-call schedules must be turned into hourly schedules.
RU: Why is it important to have regular data on the situation in the pre-hospital sector?
JG: Because the Ministry relies on data to determine the ambulance occupancy rate, both for hourly as well as on-call schedules. When the set thresholds have been reached, they must either transform the schedules or add vehicles to the hourly schedules.
Under our right to access to information, we have obtained indicators, or data, that show those set thresholds have been reached, but the Ministry has ignored the data. By not providing us with the data, the Ministry feels enabled not to transform the schedules or add vehicles.
RU: What repercussions have the non-respect of commitments had in the field?
JG: At present, the bond of trust between the paramedics and the Quebec government has been broken. The government is telling us that it is not really our employer. According to the government, we have to go through our private employers. Despite this, the government is asking us to participate in the reform of the sector and we have accepted. But what guarantee do we have that they will listen to our advice when reforming the program? They do not even respect the commitments they have already made!
RU: You have fought for several years to change your situation and you have very strong public support, yet even with that, the commitments the government made are not being respected.
JG: That’s right! We paramedics were criticized in the past for not necessarily doing things the right way. I would say that for more than a decade now, paramedics have tried to do things properly. But despite all the commitments made to us, we have seen no results. So people are really exasperated. And in particular, a bond of trust no longer exists. Our people are exhausted and it has become more and more difficult to maintain the service within those conditions of exhaustion.
RU: And the cases you are dealing with are becoming more and more complex.
JG: They are increasingly complex, and we are being asked to do more. Our intervention time is becoming longer. The population continues to age and vehicles are not being added. I understand there is going to be reform of the system because at a certain point they will say a limit has been reached in adding vehicles; we know that. However, the Ministry made a commitment to add vehicles and turn on-call into hourly schedules. We are not going to allow the fact that reform is coming to be used as an excuse to postpone the commitments the ministry has already made to us. It was because of those commitments that we were able to arrive at the agreements in 2017. If we had known that the government was not going to keep its word, we would never have ratified those collective agreements.
RU: In conclusion, can you briefly tell us what your demands are?
JG: We have known for a long time that reform of the pre-hospital sector is coming. We have several ad hoc committees set up. We are preparing a brief and at the appropriate time when the government is ready to hear us, we will be ready to make our recommendations. It would be premature to talk about it now. We will talk with you again when we have something new, before the holidays for sure.