More than 100 workers with seven private ambulance services across Newfoundland have walked off the job.
Teamsters Local 855 leader Hubert Dawe said the decision came following a meeting early Friday by the union’s strike committee, following an “incident” involving a union member on Thursday.
“The committee has given me 100 per cent mandate and as of 12 o’clock today, all our services will be walking off the job.”
Dawe said the incident involved the employer, Fewer’s Ambulance Service, reporting a union member Thursday for allegedly participating in an illegal strike, a charge Dawe said is unfounded. Union members have been participating in a work-to-rule campaign, in which they perform only their core contractual duties, since Jan. 11.
“This employer is taking advantage of government resources to try to strike-bust us on his behalf,” said Dawe.
Dawe said the union recognizes the strain the provincial health-care system is under.
“We’re just looking for a little bit of respect now in the role that we play in the health-care system, and unfortunately our members have reached the point based on this incident that the employer created yesterday, that we feel that the only way we’re going to get recognized is to take the steps that we have taken.”
The union’s goal all along has been show the value of their services, said Dawe.
“Unfortunately, it’s going to take the refusal of services and, you know, a backlog of people wanting or needing emergency services for all the people who were party to this to realize that this is a crisis situation. This situation needs to be addressed, not swept under the rug or hoped that it will go away.”
Dawe offered an apology “to the entire province” for the effect the strike could have.
“Unfortunately, the men and women who provide these services are tired and they really want some help,” he said. “Unfortunately, we feel that this is the only way to get it at this time.”
Shortly after workers walked off the job, Rodney Gaudet, president of the Paramedic Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, told CBC News a broken health-care system allowed for the strike to happen.
“We’ve had a number of reports done over the years that has alluded to a lot of different changes, and those changes have not been made,” he said.
“Even in the Health Accord there’s no implementation plan for the change of the EMS system.”
Gaudet said the strike could have been avoided if changes and recommendations were put in place years ago.
Interim PC Leader David Brazil agreed, saying Friday afternoon the provincial government should have been proactive.
“It’s worrisome, again, the fact that we have a number of challenges in our health-care system here and now we have a lot of remote and rural communities that don’t have access to ambulance services,” he said.
“I said it two years ago, I said it two months ago, I said it this week, about asking this administration to be proactive, particularly around health care. We all saw this coming.”
Labour Minister Bernard Davis told reporters government is “trying [its] best” to get both sides back to the bargaining table.
He said government has been involved in mediation for the last year.
“We’re going to stay in constant contact. We’re evaluating this situation hour by hour to ensure that when the parties are ready, we’re ready to help them get to that point of that deal that is so required to make sure this doesn’t go on for a long period of time,” Davis said.
“We can’t force the parties into an arbitration. What we can do is we can encourage them to go to the conciliation officer and use that process. We also have the ability to form a conciliation board with the agreement of the parties. Anything we can use to help them move in that direction for a deal is important to us.”
Meanwhile, Eastern Health says it’s also monitoring the situation closely.
Ken Baird, Eastern Health’s president and CEO, told CBC News Friday afternoon the health authority is ensuring it has contingency plans in place for maintaining services “to the extent possible” during the labour dispute.
“If someone needs an ambulance we encourage them to continue to call 911 and 911 will ensure that the closest ambulance to them is dispatched to provide the care that they need,” he said.
“Eastern Health has implemented our emergency operation centre to monitor the situation over the coming days and make sure that we’re responding to any pressures that we see across the system with respect to services.”
Baird said Fewer’s has put its own mitigation plans in place to ensure it has resources available, including using non-unionized staff.
“We are reasonably confident that the service response times will be maintained. However, we do acknowledge that there may be situations where some response times are prolonged,” he said.
Wide coverage area
All seven services are owned by one man, Bob Fewer. He has not responded to any media inquiries since the union went public about its labour dispute in late December.
Those companies cover a wide area of Newfoundland, from Fogo Island on the northeast coast to Trepassey on the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula, and Stephenville on the west coast.
The provincial government spends a combined $7.7 million for those services each year, not including things like mileage and patient fees. Among the key issues for the first responders are wages and the lack of a pension plan. Dawe previously said the members could make better wages and have a greater quality of life working in a fast-food restaurant.
Following the strike decision, a statement from the provincial Health Department said department staff will be working with regional health authorities to maintain services during the strike.
“In the event of any strike action, residents will continue to have access to emergency ambulance services,” reads the statement.
“Health authorities have advised that they will work with adjacent private ambulance services, will bring on additional staff to support emergency response and routine transfer services, and will also activate additional regional health authority ambulances and staff to ensure emergency response in both regions.”
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