Bogus reasoning? Paramedics angry at back-to-work legislation

By David F. Rooney

Local paramedics are angry and frustrated by the BC Liberal government’s decision to use the H1N1 pandemic as an excuse to order them back to work.

“The Health Minister’s H1N1 pandemic excuse for short-circuiting our Collective Bargaining process is nothing but a smokescreen, a Stealth manoeuvre, to ram through a one-sided contract that will do nothing to ensure that our ambulances are indeed adequately staffed for either a pandemic or the Olympics,” says Local paramedic Antoinette Halberstadt.  “All it might possibly achieve during the Olympics, is the absence of our embarrassing “On Strike” T-shirts and decals.”

Health Services Minister Kevin Falcon says the H1N1 flu, not the 2010 Winter Olympics, is why the government ordered B.C. Ambulance Service paramedics back to work on Tuesday.

“We’ve got a healthcare challenge in B.C. and we need all parties working together,” Falcon said.

Paramedics, members of CUPE 873, have worked to rule since their contract expired last spring. The back-to-work legislation gives them a three per cent pay raise and one-year contract retroactive to April 1. The government is appointing an industrial inquiry commissioner, which was among the paramedics’ demands. Paramedics had been bargaining for improved working conditions, increased on-call and stand-by pay and improvements to the challenges of recruitment and retention of rural members.

Falcon said B.C. has “gotten lucky” because he said the strike has not harmed any patients.

“Every day the strike continues increases the risk to patients and it’s my view we cannot go another day with the ambulance paramedic system operating at less than its full potential,” he said.

Falcon’s reasoning was condemned by Salmon Arm paramedic Tim Alstad, who often works in Revelstoke, too.

In an open letter to Falcon he said:

“I deal with sick people every day.  I have been spit on, punched, swore at, attacked with a knife, threatened with a bat, a gun, a dirty needle and the list goes on.  I am able to still treat every patient as I would expect my parents or family to be treated because I am a paramedic and this is what I do.  However, if I get sick from H1N1 or any other form of airborne illness due to my work, I have no short term illness or injury benefit or if I injure myself on the job I have to defend my injury to someone employed by BCAS to dispute my compensation claim.

“The complete and utter disrespect that I feel from our employer and from your government is extremely disheartening.  The people that make the decisions are the same ones who have very little idea what paramedics are subjected to every single day.”

As a result of the order, the paramedics’ legal strike is now over. But the Liberals didn’t get their way without a fight

While debating Bill 21, the Ambulance Services Collective Agreement Act, 2009, Columbia River – Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald spoke out strongly against the back-to-work legislation.

“Paramedics are the people we depend upon at the most difficult times of our lives,” he said the Legislature.  “We depend on paramedics when a child is choking.  We call when a senior is having heart attack.  We call after a motor vehicle accident.

“We depend on these people to come and do things that we are unable to do.  At that moment there is nobody more important than the person that comes and provides comfort and uses their skill to help somebody that’s injured.”

Speaking specifically about the challenges faced by paramedics in Revelstoke he lauded them for their patience not only during the strike but for waiting on the government o fulfill its promise to provide a a purpose-built ambulance station.

“This summer I was promised from the Minister on down that the ambulance station was coming, but paramedics in Revelstoke are preparing to spend yet another winter in substandard accommodations.”