Now that the government has legislatively punted the possibility of a paramedics strike into the hands of a pick-one arbitrator — who will have to choose between dueling union and management last-best offers for wages and working conditions over the next three to five years — it’s time to ask ourselves a question.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Depending on who you believe — the government, the Liberal opposition, or the union respectively — Nova Scotia lost 26, 40 or 90 of its 750 paramedics in the past year or so to greener pastures, higher wages and better working conditions in other parts of Canada. Experienced paramedics in Alberta can earn $20–30,000 more a year than in Nova Scotia.
Even Health Minister David Wilson — a former paramedic whose government legislated the end to this strike-before-it-was-a- strike — acknowledges retaining paramedics can be “a real challenge.”
Worse, many of those leaving are those most in demand — highly-trained advanced care paramedics who can administer the kind of life-saving medications at emergencies that mean the difference between… well, life and death.
Wages aren’t the only negotiating glue pot. Union leader Terry Chapman claims paramedics who call in sick aren’t replaced on their shifts, adding stress to already overworked first responders. And there is currently no easy transition for older paramedics from the pressures of the ambulance to useful work in collaborative care units or emergency rooms.
“Morale,” Chapman says, “is at an all-time low.”
The union’s last contract expired in March 2011. Since then, paramedics have soundly rejected three offers, including two recommended by their union leadership. They rejected the most recent deal — which included a government-mandated defined-benefit pension sweetener — by an overwhelming 73 per cent.
The two sides are still far apart. Management’s last offer on the table called for an 11.1 per cent wage increase spread over nearly five years. The union’s final demand was a 15 per cent raise over three years.
Since the arbitrator must choose only one proposal, both sides must frantically sharpen their pencils over the next few weeks.
The only certainty seems to be that whatever decision the arbitrator makes will not drain the poison from this bargaining well.
That should concern us all.