VANCOUVER, B.C. - Ambulance workers in British Columbia are asking their colleagues across North America not to come work at the Olympics until their labour dispute with the province is resolved, a request the union says could jeopardize service levels at the big event.
"People obviously need to be worried about whether or not an ambulance is going to be there," John Strohmaier, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., said Monday.
"It's not our intention to put patients in the middle of this dispute ... We are certainly going to try, to the best of our ability, to be there for patients when they need us. We are asking those same people to be there for us."
The province's 3,500 paramedics were forced back to work through legislation earlier this month, ending a seven-month-old job action. Paramedics worked at reduced levels during the strike, since ambulance services are designated an essential service in the province.
Despite the legislation, paramedics continue to pressure the government for a better deal.
On Monday, about 200 paramedics and supporters showed up to protest outside a speech by Health Minister Kevin Falcon and earlier this month more than 80 called in sick over two days, idling dozens of ambulances.
And Strohmaier said union members are reluctant to volunteer to work overtime as a result of the legislation, and are requesting other paramedics stay away in support.
"As long as this labour dispute exists in British Columbia they shouldn't be thinking about coming to B.C. and volunteering during the Olympics either," he said.
Strohmaier said the union is not only unhappy with the back-to-work legislation, but by the province's appointment last week of a former deputy minister, Chris Trumpy, as head of a commission set up to try to resolve the labour dispute.
"It's a pretty simple fix. Appoint an independent third party to conduct the review and this dispute is over," Strohmaier said in an interview.
As head of the commission, Trumpy is charged with reviewing issues such as salary, staffing levels, workload and health and safety. The commission is expected to report back to government Jan. 15.
Labour minister Murray Coell said Trumpy has worked under both NDP and Liberal governments and is "very independent."
Coell also said he thinks "cooler heads will prevail" and the labour dispute will be resolved before the Games.
The back-to-work legislation was passed weeks after the Olympics organizing committee, known as VANOC, wrote a letter to the government asking for a guarantee of paramedic services.
"Without full emergency services on site at the competition venues, the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games may not proceed," the committee's medical services director, Dr. Mike Wilkinson, wrote in a memo dated Sept. 14.
Wilkinson has said they've lined up volunteer medical staff in case of a shortage during the event, but will rely on the expertise of the province's ambulance system and its staff.
As part of its bid for the Games, the Vancouver organizing committee promised that every venue will have paramedics and ambulances on site at all times.
Strohmaier said there aren't enough staff to handle the ambulance needs in B.C. on a regular day, let alone during the Games.
He said the province will need "several hundred" more paramedics and ambulances to handle the thousands of visitors coming during the Olympics. But Strohmaier said he isn't aware of any plans to add staff during the Games.
Despite criticism from the paramedics' union, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said the back-to-work legislation was not passed because of the pending Olympics.
"I know lots of paramedics, and I think the paramedics are professionals, they care about people, they want to provide the public with service," Campbell told reporters after an Olympic event Monday.
"It was unfortunate for all of us that we had to legislate people back to work, but it was about the H1N1, it was the pressure that was on the system, we spent literally millions of dollars trying to find a resolution to this. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible."
The ambulance workers, who are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 873, say they went on strike seeking better staffing levels that would result in faster ambulance response times, wage parity with other emergency responders and a multi-year contract.
They argue they're being stretched to the limit by the ambulance service's dependence on part-time workers, unpaid travel time and chronic overtime.