“What do you mean you are not an essential service?”
That puzzled response is what paramedic Billie Padavell usually hears when he asks someone to support a provincial initiative tagged “Your Province Your Paramedics.” Padavell and his BC Ambulance peers across all 85 provincial ridings are asking registered voters to sign a petition that would secure the status of paramedics and ambulance dispatchers as an essential service – like fire and police.
After all, anyone who calls 9-1-1 is immediately asked, “Ambulance, fire or police?”
But that doesn’t mean all first responders are in the same collective when it comes job bargaining – paramedics are currently lumped in with facility-based healthcare jobs such as housekeeping and dietary.
“According to the act (Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act) only fire and police are an essential service, and we want to be included in that … we want to be treated like other first responders,” Padavell began.
“The general public does not realize we are not an essential service under the law,” he said. “Right now we are under the Health Authorities Act so we are with facilities when it come to bargaining. I respect the union (CUPE) but the needs are different.”
Paramedics are bargaining with food and janitorial services provided in an institution that is secure and sterile, Padavell shared.
“Everything is controlled, as you well know, paramedics are working on the street and in homes, in a dynamic situation where things are changing – like fire and police,” he said.
“So when it comes to bargaining, our issues are a little bit different than the ones in extended care, CVL (Columbia View Lodge), Rosewood or KBRH.”
The grassroots movement began in Victoria on Jan. 9, giving paramedics 90 days or until April 9 to collect signatures from at least 10 per cent of the electorate in B.C. Once that is done, the petition will be presented to the province for legislative change.
Petition tables being set up at local community events
That’s the best case scenario and similar to what was done to quash the Harmonized Sale Tax (HST), Padavell noted.
“With the HST they changed legislation, so it was null and void in the provincial election,” he clarified. “But they do not have to change legislation automatically,” Padavell added. “But according to Elections BC, if they don’t change it, then they would have to put it to a provincial referendum.”
From now until the April deadline, paramedics in the Kootenay West riding (they must be registered canvassers with Elections BC) will be knocking on doors and setting up shop at community events, hockey games and shopping malls with their petition – locally that means at least 3,000 signatories are needed.
“We need to meet that minimum threshold of 10 per cent,” said Padavell. “But of course, we don’t want to stop there. We want 15 or 20 per cent more so it lets the government know that the public is on our side.”
Interestingly, paramedics are deemed “essential” for a brief period of time every three or four years during contract talks. Padavell says once a new agreement is reached, the “essential” designation is erased.
“Under the Health Authorities Act we are allowed to strike, but if you come to an impasse in bargaining, and we give a 48-hour strike notice, what do they do?” Padavell explained. “They flip us to an essential service during the bargaining process, so we can’t strike, and that limits our ability to put pressure on them when it comes to getting what we think we need,” he said. “So it’s basically, here’s a (new) contract, you sign it and now we are going to flip you back to a non-essential service for the next four years.”
Under the fire and police act, members cannot strike, the employer cannot lock them out, and issues are resolved by a third party arbitrator, Padavell concluded.
“The needs of ambulance employees are quite unique and dissimilar to those working exclusively in hospital facilities. We are simply asking to be put into a category with our peers.”