COVID impact forces paramedic vacation cancellations

ESPANOLA—“It is an ill wind that blows no good” as the old saying goes, and for Manitoulin Sudbury District Services Board (DSB) emergency services workers, the saying holds all too true as, despite the increased stress the pandemic has put on workers, a number of vacations had to be delayed.

“As chief, my mandate is, first and foremost, public safety,” said Paul Myre, chief of DSB paramedic services in acknowledging the challenge. “I have to ensure that there is an ambulance able to go.”

Chief Myre noted that with so many of his staff down during the current wave, he had nothing but bad choices. “The first thing we looked at was banked vacation time, and we sought out volunteers for that. To their incredible credit, a lot of our staff came forward to volunteer and said ‘take this day, or take that.”

“My staff is battle weary right now,” said Chief Myre. “This was the absolute last thing any of us wanted to have to do and I am very cognizant that having no break can lead to increased sick time down the road.”

The DSB budget and staffing are already reeling from the impacts of PTSD and keeping EMS workers on the front lines when they fully deserve a break is extremely troubling said Chief Myres.

Adding to the challenge is the compounding factor of budgetary concerns. “I have to keep my eye on overtime costs as well,” he said. “As a public servant I have to be mindful of taxpayers’ dollars and that my staff need a break. We have been stickhandling these issues since early in 2021.”

In a paradox, Chief Myre noted that the DSB had largely managed to come through the pandemic relatively unscathed. “But when the kids headed back to school, it really hit home for us,” he said. “We got pounded.”

That his team has coped as well as it has, Chief Myre credits the high rate of vaccination. “We have a 97 percent vaccination rate,” he said. “That has allowed people to get back to work much faster than they would have otherwise.”

Currently, DSB has 17 employees off on sick leave, long-term disability or Workmans Safety Insurance Board leave. “Of my 36 part-time staff, 17 are just about on full-time hours. My remaining 20 or so staff are trying to cover the best they can.”

In a near-perfect storm, DSB is currently facing the same staffing challenges as other emergency services across the province. “Out of the 30 respondents to our advertising for new staff, about 11 have moved on to the next round,” he said.

So, in the end, DSB was forced by circumstance to force short-term sacrifices. “We held off as long as we could,” said Chief Myre. “We have assured our staff that we will make it up to them as soon as we could.”

Interim OPSEU local 679 president Kathy Harvey, who represents the EMS workers, said that the union “continues to work with our managers in this difficult time” in order to deal with the current labour shortages.

Perhaps there has been a silver lining amongst the clouds borne on those aforementioned ill winds, thanks to the efforts of the dedicated DSB EMS staff, across the Manitoulin-Sudbury catchment area. Ambulances still come when they are called.