Nova Scotia’s union for paramedics says higher pay needed to help retain workers
By Keith Doucette
HALIFAX — Nova Scotia paramedics say it’s not just long-term care workers who need pay hikes if the province wants to shore up its health network.
In an appearance before a legislature committee Wednesday, an official with the union representing more than 1,100 paramedics in the province said a pay increase similar to the 23 per cent bump given last week to continuing care workers would help with ongoing retention issues.
“Our paramedics are some of the most highly skilled and trained in North America, and yet they are some of the lowest paid,” said Kevin MacMullin, business manager and CEO for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727.
“It’s easy to see why we are bleeding paramedics to other professions and other jurisdictions.”
The provincial government said the sudden wage increase for continuing care workers is part of a strategy to free up hospital beds occupied by patients who could be looked after in nursing homes. Premier Tim Houston said increasing the capacity of continuing care is only possible by attracting more people into a profession that has historically been underpaid in Nova Scotia.
MacMullin was asked by Liberal public accounts committee member Brendan McGuire whether there had been any recent discussions with the government about a comparable wage increase for his members.
“We have discussed with the Department of Health … the need to increase the amount of remuneration for paramedics,” MacMullin replied. “Someone has to step up to the plate and start saying ‘Hey in order to keep people, we have to pay them appropriately.”’
The paramedics’ last contract was reached with the help of an arbitrator in February 2020 and runs until Oct. 31, 2023.
According to the union, the top salary for a primary care paramedic in Nova Scotia is just over $63,000 a year, while the top rate in Ontario is close to $81,000. Advanced care paramedics meanwhile top out at around $78,000 in Nova Scotia.
In addition to the loss of workers to provinces that pay more, MacMullin said ongoing problems in the system that have paramedics habitually overworked have pushed more into retirement. “Right now, we have 21 per cent of our workforce out on leaves of absence, short-term disability, workmen’s compensation and long-term disability,” MacMullin said.
He said at a minimum, the health system could use another 250 paramedics to bolster the ranks.
Craig Beaton, associate deputy minister of health, said about 190 paramedics were hired in 2019, but he said that number dipped to less than 50 in 2020 because of an inability to provide in-class training during the pandemic. The hirings improved to around 85 in 2021.
“We haven’t quite gotten back to where we were from a recruiting perspective — we know that is a significant challenge,” Beaton told the committee.
Both Beaton and MacMullin pointed to Monday’s announcement of a new temporary licence that will enable graduating paramedic trainees to work in the field sooner as something that will provide immediate help.
“This will get us some boots on the ground, but the key part of this is we have an exhausted workforce that is decimated,” said MacMullin. “They’ve got to be paid more.”
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