Bill 24 passes in House of Assembly, putting pause on private ambulance workers' strike

Private ambulance workers took their picket line to Confederation Building on Monday, as the Newfoundland and Labrador government debated a bill that would make them essential workers and force them back to work. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Private ambulance workers took their picket line to Confederation Building on Monday, as the Newfoundland and Labrador government debated a bill that would make them essential workers and force them back to work. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

Bill 24 — legislation to end a private ambulance strike — passed late Monday night after hours of debate in the House of Assembly.

The bill's passing means more than 100 ambulance workers who were on strike since Friday across Newfoundland are going back to work immediately. The bill has not yet received royal assent, which will turn it into law; that's expected to happen sometime on Tuesday.

The bill was introduced at an emergency sitting of the House of Assembly on Monday morning, on the fourth day of a private ambulance strike affecting paramedics and emergency medical responders across a wide area of the island.

There were some speed bumps along the way.

"It's an emergency situation," Government House leader John Hogan said before Interim NDP Leader Jim Dinn blocked the bill a second time earlier on Monday.

"We can move to debate right now, as soon as I sit down, if everyone is willing to do that and to debate the merits of the bill, as opposed to playing politics with the timing of it and whatnot. People's lives are at stake. It's beyond an emergency."

Hogan then asked the Speaker to adjourn the House until later in the morning while they tried to hash things out behind closed doors. When they came back at 11:15 a.m., they'd reached an agreement to hold question period before allowing the bill to go to debate.

Dinn said the bill — which makes private ambulance operators an essential service — comes much too late.

"This week's health-care crisis is of Premier [Andrew] Furey's own making," he said. "Government could have brought legislation in to the House of Assembly in the spring session or the fall when it could be properly debated and made into more than a ploy to break the spirits of workers taking job action."

The bill ultimately passed shortly after 9 p.m.

But despite the NDP's rejections, the intent of the legislation has been welcomed by the union.

Hubert Dawe, who led the negotiations for Teamsters Local 855, wanted to see legislation that will establish the union's members as essential workers and set clear timelines for when a labour matter is sent to arbitration. He said he also wanted to see it include penalties in the event either side hinders the process.

Around noon, Dawe told reporters, the union told Fewer's Ambulance Service it was willing to return to emergency services at 4 p.m. "as a gesture of good faith."

Submitted by Nathanael White
Submitted by Nathanael White

He said Fewer's wasn't interested in a partial return to service.

"I was baffled," Dawe said. "When I stood up in front of the members and I said we offered to go back to work for 4 p.m. and the employer said no, the room went silent. It was eerie, almost."

Union wanted essential legislation

The workers walked away from their ambulances at noon Friday, after talks broke down with their employer, Fewer's Ambulance Service Limited.

The new legislation now requires members of Teamsters Local 855 to get back to work right away, until an "essential services agreement" can be worked out between the union and the employer. Those agreements typically outline what aspects of a service are essential and how many people are needed to meet that standard.

Once that is established, the workers can return to the picket line while maintaining the terms set out in the essential services agreement. Future labour disputes could be referred to the province's Labour Relations Board, which can refer a dispute to binding arbitration.

Kyle Mooney/CBC
Kyle Mooney/CBC

Furey said only ambulance services provided through health authorities have such coverage under existing legislation.

"Paramedics employed by private ambulance service operators fall under the Labour Relations Act and have thus far not been deemed essential," his office wrote in a release on Saturday.

No reported incidents on Day 4 of strike

Some of the sticking issues for the workers include poor working conditions, lower wages than public ambulance operators, and lack of pension plan.

They cover a huge area of Newfoundland, from Fogo Island in the northeast to Trepassey on the southern Avalon, and Stephenville on the west coast.

Eastern Health took the lead on a mitigation plan, with interim CEO Ken Baird saying they were "reasonably confident" they could still meet standard response times.

Dawe said morale is high among the striking workers and he's not aware of any incidents over the weekend .

"The members finally have a sense that people are aware of what they do and are validating them," he said.

Volunteer firefighters feeling weight of strike

While health authorities have said they're reasonably confident they'll be able to cover the striking workers with other ambulance services, volunteer firefighters have been preparing for a bigger role.

Small-town fire departments are often called upon to help with medical calls, said Come By Chance fire Chief Duane Antle, but the role is usually to assist paramedics.

They're now anticipating situations where they'll be alone on scene for about an hour before an ambulance can come from another town.

Adam Walsh/CBC
Adam Walsh/CBC

He said that's going to affect his firefighters in several ways.

"One is, do we have the equipment and the training to take on that type of a role as opposed to a support role? That's one thing. Then you consider the fact we are in our own communities," he said. "There's nobody in the community that someone on our crew is not related to. So if we're at an extended call, that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on us. Because not only are we dealing with a situation, but a situation that involves someone we care about on a very personal level."

Antle said the contingency planning is appreciated, but with a coverage area stretching from Arnold's Cove to Clarenville, he fears it won't be enough.

"To me, it isn't sustainable at all."

Antle said his team spent the weekend planning for worst-case scenarios and ensuring people were home to respond to calls. Instead of doing their regular training session on Monday night, Antle said, the squad will be at home waiting for medical calls.

"It's not what my department is set up for. We're set up to assist and not take over. So to me, I really hope this doesn't go on too long because it's putting a tremendous strain on my volunteers."

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