The paramedics of Essex County organized as CUPE 2974 have voted 100 per cent in favour of strike action in the event of an impasse during ongoing negotiations.

The strike mandate comes after years of relentless advocacy by CUPE 2974 calling on the county to improve the quality of service the local community has been receiving.

Over the past few years, the Essex County paramedic service has frequently been hampered by Code Blacks – occasions when there are no ambulances available to respond to 911 calls. In October 2022, the county declared a state of emergency concerning ambulance availability after an increase in the frequency and duration of Code Blacks.

“We are imploring Essex County to address the sharp decline in the quality of our paramedic service that is putting patients in our community at risk,” said James Jovanovic, CUPE 2974 president and an active paramedic.

“Paramedics are caring and compassionate people – it’s the reason why we enter the profession. It’s heartbreaking to arrive late to a scene when a person is in critical need of a paramedic’s help. And it’s equally heartbreaking to see so many paramedics burning out due to the added stress placed on them by systemic deficiencies.”

Jovanovic said understaffing has been a significant problem, which worsened through the course of the pandemic, as the added strain to the health care system exacerbated previously existing issues in the emergency medical services sector.

The union is calling on the employer to invest more in retention and recruitment to resolve staffing challenges, which is one of the primary factors contributing to reduced ambulance availability. Despite past recruitment initiatives, Essex Windsor EMS is losing paramedics at about the same rate as the onboarding of new staff. The rate of burnout is another concern as nearly 40 paramedics are currently absent due to workplace injuries.

“We don’t have the required staffing levels to properly address the demanding working conditions and the needs of an expanding community. Medics are struggling to keep up and patients are increasingly at risk as a result.” Jovanovic said. “Remaining comparable and competitive with other services is crucial towards being able to attract and retain qualified paramedics from around the province.”

He said a critical factor afflicting paramedics was lack of respect compared to other emergency services who had better compensation and working conditions.

“The significant mental health trauma paramedics sustain, coupled with being treated as second tier emergency responders, has caused many to reconsider entering into or remaining in the profession,” Jovanovic stated.

He explained that even though paramedics were regrettably already accustomed to skipping meal breaks and working overtime to compensate for understaffing, the lack of substantive action from the employer has stretched the service past its breaking point.

“We have been vocal about the dire need for improvements in the quality of working conditions, which are intrinsically tied to the quality of the paramedic service,” Jovanovic said.

“Unfortunately, in the past two years, we haven’t seen any real action from Essex-Windsor EMS or the County Council. While we hope to reach a deal at the negotiating table, we are ready to defend our local paramedic service to improve care standards for the people of this community – through job action if necessary”.