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Ambulances wait outside the emergency room entrace of St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia will boost on-call and overtime pay for paramedics in rural and remote communities as part of a temporary agreement to bolster ambulance service, as the government and union representing the workers continue contract negotiations.

The Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC calls the interim measures announced late Monday a helpful step, while the service grapples with staffing issues that have left some smaller communities with up to half of its of vehicles out of commission – resulting in several deaths attributed to long wait times. However, the union said they are far from a meaningful fix.

“They are a Band-Aid to buy us some time to really get to some longer-term solutions,” Troy Clifford, the provincial president of APBC, said on Tuesday.

Health Minister Adrian Dix likened the agreement between the BC Emergency Health Services, or BCEHS, and the APBC to the government’s continuing work with the province’s doctors, saying the interim measures would help stabilize the system as new models are negotiated.

“In this case, there are issues that we wanted to address now as we were discussing a collective agreement with ambulance paramedics,” Mr. Dix said.

“This will, I think, improve our ability to recruit, in particular, in rural and remote areas, while supporting more difficult shifts to fill in urban areas as well.”

There are currently two on-call models servicing rural and remote communities. Shifts that are scheduled on-call, or SOC, see paramedics work 24-hour shifts for three consecutive days, being paid each day for an eight-hour shift at the station and $2 per hour for each of the remaining 16 hours. The other model, sometimes called “pager pay,” sees them paid $2 per hour to be on standby for backup or secondary ambulances and receive a standard paramedic rate when they are on a call.

The temporary agreement, which takes effect immediately, will see the on-call pay increase to $12 per hour from $2 – a decades-old rate that Mr. Clifford said has been particularly unhelpful in recruitment efforts.

It will “hopefully entice those people who aren’t working as much, or chose not to take that SOC … to pick up some of those extra shifts,” he said. “But it isn’t going to fix all of our problems, because we really need to address that on-call model, and move away from that to more full-time.”

The union has blamed the on-call model for up to half of ambulances sitting parked in rural and remote communities, and 20 per cent to 30 per cent in urban centres at times.

The agreement, which also includes doubling the pay rate for overtime and recall shifts worked on evenings and weekends, replaces two incentive programs BCEHS introduced in June. They provided $100 per shift for local paramedics committing to regular on-call shifts and those willing to take two- to four-week-long locum placements in remote communities.

The interim measures will terminate when the parties ratify a new collective agreement, which is expected by the end of the year, unless the parties agree to an extension. They began bargaining early this month.

Mr. Clifford said a key issue is paramedic wages, which are, on average, at least 30 per cent less than other first responders. Others include recruitment and retention, and service delivery models, all of which are linked. The union is also calling for better mental-health benefits.

“We know that at any given time, at least 30 per cent of our members are either off on WorkSafeBC claims for psychological injuries, in treatment through our Critical Incident Stress Management program or self-managing with their health care professional,” he said. To address that, he added, requires “supports in the workplace, but preventative.”

After last summer’s heat dome killed more than 600 people, the B.C. government increased psychological support services through the CISM program for BCEHS employees who are injured on the job. But preventative measures are limited to $100 per year for psychological supports in the current collective agreement, Mr. Clifford said – pointing to the example of Starbucks Canada, which offers employees $5,000 per year in mental-health benefits.

“It’s absolutely atrocious that, unless I actually get injured at work, all we have is $100.”