Paramedics' union supports new training funding, but says wages must go up, too

The province has committed to providing tuition rebates for paramedics who remain in the province for three years, but the union says a wage increase is also necessary. (Craig Paisley/CBC - image credit)
The province has committed to providing tuition rebates for paramedics who remain in the province for three years, but the union says a wage increase is also necessary. (Craig Paisley/CBC - image credit)

The union representing paramedics in Nova Scotia says the plan to expand training to more areas of the province is good, but without wage increases, retention will continue to be a problem.

Kevin MacMullin, the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727, said there is a shortage of paramedics, and expanding the training course will help fill those vacancies.

Right now, paramedic training is offered only in Halifax and Sydney and is given by Medavie, the company that provides paramedic services in the province.

On Wednesday, the government announced the program will be expanded to Yarmouth in April and Pictou County in September.

A tuition rebate of $11,500 will also be offered to paramedics who work in the province for at least three years. Tuition costs approximately $19,500 for the 54-week course.

"It's difficult for people that want to get into the program to have to travel to Halifax and find a place to rent. You know, it's expensive, so this will make it right in their backyard," MacMullin said. "They can go there at a cheaper rate and turn around and get trained and be hired in their area."

Jeorge Sadi/CBC
Jeorge Sadi/CBC

Jeff Fraser, the executive director of the Emergency Health Services branch for the Health Department, said the initial expansion will double the number of seats in the province from about 50 to 100, but there is enough funding to expand to 150 seats over time.

Although enrolment has decreased in recent years in Nova Scotia and in other jurisdictions, Fraser said since the announcement, 54 applications have already been received, and he's confident the seats will be filled.

Anyone currently enrolled in paramedic training in the province, and those who fill the new seats, will receive conditional job offers.

Hundreds of vacancies

Of the about 1,100 paramedic positions in the province, the number of vacancies on any given day fluctuates widely. Vacancies can be created by staff retiring, moving away, taking parental leave or going on short- or long-term disability.

Fraser said on Friday, there were 255 vacancies, and 75 of those were permanent vacancies.

MacMullin said Nova Scotia's recent population increase means there's also more demand on the system.

He said with a global shortage of paramedics, Nova Scotia is competing for skilled employees not just with other provinces, but internationally. He said if the province wants to fill the paramedic vacancies and retain staff, remuneration needs to improve.

"People in other provinces, in other jurisdictions are willing to pay more money to get paramedics. … They come and entice them away with money offers."

Paramedics in Nova Scotia are the lowest paid in the country, he said, with a starting wage of about $26 an hour, compared to about $38 in other provinces. The highest end of the wage scale in Nova Scotia is $36 an hour, whereas in British Columbia or Ontario, the highest-paid paramedics make closer to $50 an hour.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Any wage increase would be part of contract negotiations between the union and Medavie, but ultimately, the province is responsible for providing the funding to Medavie.

Medavie did not make anyone available for an interview.

"We're very open to supporting whatever changes need to happen," Fraser said.

Asked whether the province is open to supporting a wage increase if Medavie negotiates one, he said, "I believe so. We value the paramedics and what they do, so yeah, for sure."

The current contract between the union and Medavie expires on Oct. 31.

Hiring of patient transport operators ongoing

Meanwhile, the recruitment and hiring of patient transport operators continues. Last year, the province announced it would be hiring 100 new operators to handle routine patient transfers to alleviate pressure on the ambulance system.

Those 100 new hires would bring the total number of patient transport operators to 180. The system was overwhelmed with applicants, and the hiring process was paused, but then later resumed.

There are now about 130 patient transport operators.