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B.C. paramedics petition to join police and firefighters' collective bargaining pact

Nick Eagland, Postmedia Network

BC Paramedics, including Maria Cirstea (working on Gabriola Island), canvass people to sign petitions at Broadway and Cambie skytrain station in Vancouver, B.C., March 17, 2017. B.C.'s paramedics are currently campaigning for the Fire and Police Services CBA to be amended to include them. They need to collect 310,000 signatures by April 10. (Arlen Redekop / Postmedia Network)

BC Paramedics, including Maria Cirstea (working on Gabriola Island), canvass people to sign petitions at Broadway and Cambie skytrain station in Vancouver, B.C., March 17, 2017. B.C.'s paramedics are currently campaigning for the Fire and Police Services CBA to be amended to include them. They need to collect 310,000 signatures by April 10. (Arlen Redekop / Postmedia Network)

They feel burned out, but B.C.'s paramedics are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps for the final weeks of a battle to gain the same bargaining rights, wages and resources as police and firefighters.

Josh Henshaw was granted approval Jan. 9 to launch a petition to amend the Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act to include paramedics like him.

Henshaw, who works and lives in Victoria, said that when compared to other emergency services, paramedics feel they've been "left in the dust," impacting their ability to serve the public.

The Justice Institute of B.C. lists primary-care paramedics as earning an average wage between $20 and $30 per hour — but part-time paramedics often earn as little as $2 per hour in pager pay, Henshaw said.

"It's really the overwork and the burnout that's the drag because we all sort of accepted the wage issue before starting," Henshaw said.

After paramedics held a strike in 2010, the government moved them into the Facilities Bargaining Association with 39,000 other health-support staff in hospitals, including admitting clerks, lab technicians and cleaning staff.

The move has stripped B.C.'s 4,000 paramedics of their power to accept or reject a contract or strike vote — and paramedics don't want to be forced into a position where they must strike, Henshaw said.

"The whole purpose of collective bargaining really gets thrown out the window," he said.

Henshaw's draft bill proposes changing the name to the "Ambulance, Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act" and would remove paramedics' right to strike and the right of their employer to lockout during an impasse in collective bargaining.

It would require binding arbitration to resolve contract disputes.

Henshaw said there are 1,430 registered canvassers — mostly paramedics but also some friends, family and concerned community members — scrambling across the province to spread their message and gather signatures.

By April 10, the paramedics need the support of 10 per cent of registered voters in each of B.C.'s 85 electoral districts – about 316,000 signatures. So far, they've gathered enough signatures in only five electoral districts.

Paramedic Maria Cirstea was with colleagues gathering signatures Friday at Broadway and Cambie Street in Vancouver. Every shift, they're working overtime and struggling with a severe shortage of ambulances, she said.

"With the fentanyl crisis, all of our resources are getting drawn to the overdoses," she said.

Cirstea believes that if the petition achieves its goal, paramedics could have access to more resources and training, and more staff could be hired to respond to calls.

She said there has been "overwhelming support" from the public but she believes it will be a struggle to get votes in Metro Vancouver, where population density makes it tricky to reach the 10 per cent of voters.

She urged voters to visit the website yourparamedics.ca and look at the paramedics' canvassing calendar.

Bronwyn Barter, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C., said the union supports the paramedics and agrees that they need to have a stand-alone bargaining unit.

“I really do recognize that this grassroots initiative is reflective of the frustration the paramedics are having around the province as a result of being in the FBA,” she said.

But the union is unsure if the Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act is the right fit, Barter said. Counsel is currently reviewing options.

“Unfortunately, I think there’s this idea out there that if we get in the Fire and Police Services Bargaining Act, we’ll have wage parity with police and fire,” she said. "That’s simply not the case."

Some paramedics have been telling the public that the change would finally make them an essential service like police and fire — but Barter said they are misinterpreting the current situation.

In an emailed reply to questions, Kristy Anderson, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health, explained that essential service levels are already maintained during any labour disruption that involves paramedics.

"Essential service levels outline the staffing levels required to ensure the continued provision of safe patient care for both the union and employer," Anderson said.

Moving paramedics to a labour system of arbitration would lead to rising costs for taxpayers "as is evident in the municipal system," she said.

Anderson said paramedics were brought into the FBA in 2010 to integrate their services more closely with the broader health-care system.

B.C. Emergency Health Services has improved patient care with initiatives such as a community paramedics program and a Health Authority Liaison Officers project that trains paramedics to improve hospital flow with emergency department staff and decrease turnaround times, she said.

Anderson highlighted the March 8 announcement of $91.4 million in provincial funding over three years for emergency-health services, intended to speed up ambulance response times and hire 80 more paramedics and dispatchers.

"Our government will continue to work with B.C. paramedics to ensure that their needs are balanced with the needs of the community," she said.

neagland@postmedia.com