Hastings County Paramedics Reject Interim Contract Agreement


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Citing mental health, working conditions and personnel issues, paramedics employed by Hastings County rejected a tentative contract, sending the parties into conciliation talks.

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Hastings-Quinte Paramedic Services paramedics serve Hastings and Prince Edward counties. They are represented by Local 1842 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Hastings County human resources manager Shaune Lightfoot said the last contract between the county and the union expired on Dec. 31, 2020. Negotiations began in March 2021.

Local chairman and paramedic Kelly Conner told The Intelligencer that 94 of 155 members, or just under 61%, voted from February 28 to March 2 in Belleville and Bancroft.

Sixty-nine percent of those who voted to reject the proposed deal. Thirty-one percent voted to accept it.

“The main reasons are simply poor working conditions and lack of mental health support,” Conner said.

“These are not new topics,” she said, but the “pandemic has only amplified” existing issues.

Conner said issues include the continued and heightened pressure of the service’s expanded role during the pandemic role; a shortage of staff, a problem that plagues many health care organizations; and insufficient benefits for mental health support.

Senior county officials, however, say they have made improvements and are working on more, including an additional ambulance and crew in 2022.

“We reached a settlement with the union’s bargaining committee,” Lightfoot said. “We are disappointed to hear that the members rejected it after working on it last year.”

Lightfoot noted that the employer and union had previously agreed there would be no strikes or lockouts and had signed an essential ambulance service agreement, as required by Ontario law.

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He said the two sides were now engaged in a non-binding conciliation process. Either can file a no-commission report, which would cause the conciliator to notify the department of the impasse.

From there, Lightfoot said, an interest arbitration process could lead to a binding resolution.

“We certainly recognize there’s a significant pressure on paramedics and the workload — and not just them, but health care in general,” Lightfoot said.

“We appreciate the work of our pandemics and certainly during the pandemic they have risen to the occasion.”

The union’s Conner acknowledged the praise pandemics have received over the past two years, but said those statements did not match the employer’s offer.

“Despite all the talk, we just thought there would be a little more support out there,” she said. Conner said there was “no real improvement”.

The latest contract gave workers $20 per counseling session with an annual maximum of $200, she said. Lightfoot declined to discuss details of the deal.

The newly rejected agreement would have removed the amount per session and set an annual maximum of $500. Conner said that would only cover a few sessions.

“We appreciate the improvement, however, with everything going on, unfortunately it’s just not enough.”

Conner said some part-time paramedics work as much as full-time workers, but without the same benefits; they receive a percentage instead of benefits.

“Across all departments, we are significantly behind … for our mental health supports,” Conner said, adding that a York Region unit is negotiating benefits beyond the $1,000 annual maximum currently in place. .

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The union also launched a provincial campaign calling for increased funding for paramedic services; Ontario and the municipalities share the costs roughly equally.

She said missing breaks and meals, working overtime and working understaffed are common. Paramedics can refuse overtime, but there are plenty of opportunities to work overtime, she added.

The practice of “downsizing” in times of staff shortages means that there is sometimes only one paramedic, not two, per ambulance, or a shift is short by a team full of two people. Conner said it happened “almost every day”. When crews are called to other areas, their home area may not be covered.

“You may have to wait twice as long for an ambulance,” Conner said.

“We are able to respond to any emergency in a timely manner,” Chief Doug Socha said.

He said some response times may be longer, but it can happen any day given the increased call volume.

“We have 2,000 more life-threatening emergency calls” in 2021 compared to 2020, he said. It was a 10% increase. The aging population is one reason for the increase, Socha said.

“Patients are sicker,” he added.

“We always meet our response time standards.”

He and Lightfoot acknowledged that personnel issues are ongoing.

Conner said about 30 paramedics are currently off work and about half are due to injuries, including those related to mental health.

“At the end of our shift, we’re just mentally and physically exhausted,” she said.

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Lightfoot and Socha said any county efforts to address mental health, staffing and workload issues are not part of the bargaining process.

Mental health is “always a big concern for us,” Socha said.

He said workplace compensation claims “are rising exponentially.

“We are not unique. It happens everywhere.

He said Ontario’s new legislation presumes post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders is job-related, which translates to faster access to benefits and support.

“The workload is really heavy, and has been” for some time, Socha. Paramedics rose to the challenge, he said, but it increased the pressure on them. Not only were they dealing with COVID-19, but they were involved in many other tasks, including supporting testing and vaccination, doing more community paramedics, and wearing bulky protective gear.

He said the service must “absolutely” continue to deal with these pressures, including working to reduce barriers in the healthcare system. They include an increased wait to discharge patients from overcrowded hospitals: more than 928 hours late last year.

The service has set up a hospital bypass system to help with this and discussions are continuing with Quinte Health Care.

“We are withdrawing from assessment centers (COVID-19). We won’t be here after the end of this month.

Hiring continues. Socha reported the hiring in 2021 of 20 new part-time paramedics to supplement the 35 hired a year earlier. However, only 31 of them are still serving.

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The chief said other paramedic services are also recruiting. Hastings-Quinte has hired some from outside the area, he said, and they may work more than one part-time job. If more work is available elsewhere, some may leave, Socha said.

This year’s budget has been reduced by 5,700 hours to reflect actual costs paid due to staff absences, still less than the 92 full-time positions planned for last year.

This budget cut must be reinvested this year, Socha wrote in a report.

What was an ambulance operating five days a week and eight hours a day will instead be an ambulance operating 12-hour shifts every day.

Socha said recent improvements to the service include peer support measures, specific guidance for first responders and even giving mental health providers first-hand experience of life on the service so they have a better understanding of the work and needs of paramedics.

At a special meeting on Monday, county councilors discussed the labor situation in a closed session. No details were released during the public session, which lasted less than five minutes and saw council staff ordered to follow the instructions given in the closed part.

The union’s Conner said members are also concerned about other issues raised during negotiations; she would not divulge them.

Lightfoot said the parties should now meet to discuss their next steps. No meeting date had been set for Tuesday.

Socha will present a year-end report and discuss this year’s proposed budget at Wednesday’s meeting of the county’s Joint Emergency Services Committee.

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