EMS workers are right to demand increase

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

As Calgary continues to experience a population influx that outpaces the ability of infrastructure to keep up with demand, it would seem that everything possible should be done to make sure that emergency services are affected as little as possible. Unfortunately, this logic is apparently not as straightforward as it should be. At the end of last week, an arbitrator sided with the city in its battle against paramedics seeking wage increases. Better hope we all stay healthy.

In other words, the decision was to increase wages by 12 per cent over the next three years. This is the exact figure the city had tabled during negotiations. The paramedics union had demanded that its members be paid the same as other city workers. It’s obvious paramedics are extremely dissatisfied with this inequality–99 per cent of them voted to strike back in July. So, with the arbitrator’s ruling, paramedics will continue to earn less than other city employees and surely will continue to be unimpressed by the city’s refusal to recognize them as equally valuable as its other workers who have undergone similar levels of training.

The implications of this decision could be tremendous. Some reports have indicated that up to a dozen active paramedics are expected to resign. This must be considered in light of the fact that there already exists a shortage of paramedics in Calgary. In fact, there is a shortage of every kind of worker in the city, so it should have been even more obvious that screwing one of the most important of them was not really in anyone’s best interest. City officials should be doing everything they can at the moment to make sure this type of job is an attractive prospect. It already involves long hours and some of the most intense psychological pressure a worker can encounter, which means that in order to want to do this job, the benefits must be immensely appealing. Paying paramedics less than other city employees is hardly the way to go about doing this.

Even if those dozen paramedics don’t resign, this decision will still jeopardize the effectiveness of emergency services. It requires nothing more than a basic understanding of how to tie one’s shoes to realise that as Calgary grows, it will need to hire more paramedics. This won’t be easy to do when prospective workers look around and see that they can get much better deals elsewhere.

A city spokeswoman commented that a 12 per cent increase results in “probably the best rate in western Canada.” To buy into this, though, would be foolish. Though it may be the best rate in western Canada, one must also consider that the cost of living in Calgary is much higher than in other cities. In 2006, Calgary was recorded as the third-most expensive city in Canada. With the highest inflation rate in the country, it can be assured that it is gaining position in the race towards hopelessly high prices. As such, in order to gain a true understanding of whether or not paramedics in Calgary are being paid fairly, it is necessary to measure their wages against those also dealing with Calgary’s ridiculous rent rates and housing costs. This is exactly what the paramedics themselves have proposed and this is exactly what the city and the arbitrator in their craven ineptitude have ignored.

Unfortunately the new deal is binding until July 2009, so it will be increasingly difficult for the city to recruit and retain its paramedics through to that time, when another dispute will likely arise. It’s a scary thought, surely, when one realises that the city’s rising population will lead to increasing need for emergency services. With brilliant management like this, one can only hope that the police department’s contract doesn’t expire for quite some time.

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