The Yukon government’s dispute with rural ambulance attendants has dragged on because the volunteers won’t negotiate, says Brad Cathers.
“The frustration and delay in significant part was caused by the two volunteer ambulance crews not coming to the table to discuss it,” said the Health minister on Tuesday.
“There was a hand of welcome extended from our side,” he said.
Not true, say Watson Lake attendants.
“They are trying to turn it on us because they don’t want to look like the bad guys,” said Watson Lake’s ambulance negotiating committee head Stacy Doyle on Tuesday.
“They are trying to make it look like we’re the hold-out,” added Watson’s ambulance supervisor Pauline Lund.
“But we told them right from day one — we’ll go back to work, just give us some sort of interim agreement until negotiations can be reached.
Even a temporary agreement where attendants get $5 an hour to pack radios would have worked, she said.
Instead Lund received a letter from the government.
“It said if we did not pick up our radios and go back to work, we would not be part of modernizing the ambulance service,” she said.
“Our input was of no interest to them.”
The government hired Outside ambulance attendants to service the two communities.
The attendants are earning between $55,350 and $58,185 annually. Their living costs are also covered.
Two houses have been rented in Watson Lake for the attendants, said Lund.
And instead of running errands in their vehicles, the attendants use the ambulance, she said.
“There’s all this expensive equipment in the vehicle — those are taxpayers’ dollars.”
Monday night, Premier Dennis Fentie held a community dinner in Watson Lake.
The event was staged to address issues and concerns in the premier’s riding.
“The first question that was asked was, ‘What is going on with the ambulance service?’” said Lund.
“And how much is it costing taxpayers?”
Lund told Fentie about the letter she’d received from his government, warning that Watson’s attendants wouldn’t be part of the negotiation process if they didn’t return to work.
Fentie said rip up the letter and throw it out, said Lund.
He could not say how much the rural ambulance crisis had cost the territory so far, she added.
Watson’s rural ambulance attendants sent in their first complaints in February.
“And we had no response from government,” said Doyle.
The service was struggling with poor facilities and volunteer burnout.
“We didn’t have enough people and there was nothing to entice more volunteers,” she said.
The high call volume was too much.
“We warned them things were getting critical and they ignored the warnings until we couldn’t deal with it,” said Lund.
“We finally handed in our radios because we’d had enough and nothing was being done,” said Doyle.
The Watson Lake crew thought they’d see an immediate response from government.
“But unfortunately we didn’t,” said Doyle.
So, two weeks after Watson Lake’s attendants walked off the job, the rural ambulance negotiating committee came forward with a comprehensive proposal.
The proposal, containing long-term goals and interim changes, was hand-delivered to government officials by rural ambulance negotiating committee chair Neale Wortley at the beginning of July, said Doyle.
“And we didn’t hear anything from government until the new deputy minister of Health (Stuart Whitley) came to Watson Lake two weeks ago,” she said.
“That’s at least three months after we handed in our proposal.”
At the meeting with Whitley, Doyle repeated the request for an interim agreement in writing so the Watson Lake crew could return to work.
“But that’s not what we got,” she said.
Instead, she received a fax clarifying the comments made during the meeting.
A week earlier, Wortley met with Whitley.
Following that meeting, Wortley suggested attendants pick up their radios as a sign of good faith, said Doyle.
“But I don’t know how much good faith you can give to the government anymore,” she said.
“Because we are watching people being paid — it’s really disrespectful and disgusting the way volunteers are being treated. We’re not the bad guys.”
“Wortley said, if we don’t pick up our radios, then there’s not going to be any negotiations — he relayed the message from the deputy minister,” said Doyle.
“So months later, we’re still getting the same response.”
Wortley is supposed to be championing the rural ambulance crews, as their spokesperson.
But there is a conflict of interest, said Lund.
“Wortley is a government employee, so he can’t bring the government into dispute.”
He is also supposed to be talking to the media, said Doyle.
The News has tried to contact Wortley.
The calls have not been returned.
“Neale Wortley is facing the challenge of getting the former crews from Watson Lake and Dawson to commit to re-engaging in the negotiation process,” said Cathers.
Also false, said Lund.
On Friday, Lund was planning to attend the rural ambulance supervisors meeting in Whitehorse.
“But Wortley told me we weren’t welcome,” she said.
“He said the other communities didn’t want us there because we weren’t working.
“All we want is an interim agreement,” said Lund.
“We’ve told Cathers this all along — so why hasn’t he moved?”