‘System is under extreme stress’: WFPS sick days, OT this year top entire 2021
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Sick days and overtime hours have soared this year for Winnipeg firefighters and paramedics, with the rise in absences leaving four recent shifts short-staffed.
The number of sick days taken by the emergency workers jumped to 16,695 during the first five months of 2022 (including long-term leaves and denied Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba claims) from 10,535 throughout all of 2021, according to Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service data.
Overtime also surged higher, to 154,126 hours between Jan. 1 and May 31, 2022, from 110,023 throughout 2021.
The absences have caused concern over recent weeks, since firefighters were short-staffed on four different shifts — a problem their union claims is putting patient safety at risk. The city’s fire response fell six members short June 26, seven short June 18, and three short June 19.
On Wednesday, the WFPS confirmed a fire crew fell four members short again July 2, taking one engine out of service for a 10-hour day shift.
Officials blamed the shortages directly on the fact the service couldn’t find enough staff to work overtime to cover vacation, sick days and other leaves.
“We’re at a point here where the system is under extreme stress, both fire operations and paramedic operations,” said WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt.
Schmidt believes the COVID-19 pandemic is a key cause of the surge in absences, since staff are still expected to isolate after testing positive and be symptom-free before they return to work. However, he said those protections remain critical to protect patients.
“Unlike in a hospital system, where you have some control over where an individual works and the access to the type of patients that they have, in particular immunocompromised patients, we don’t have that same ability in our workplace. When the 911 call comes in, our crews have to respond,” Schmidt said Wednesday.
WFPS expects to overspend its 2022 budget by $7.5 million, largely to cover surging OT costs.
Schmidt said persistently high emergency call volumes, facing increased violence on calls, and burnout also contributed to staff absences and an increase in WCB psychological claims for 2021. Those claims rose to 234 in 2021, up from 134 the previous year. Another 69 such claims were filed during the first five months of 2022.
“We know that our call volumes have increased across the board. It’s during those calls there’s, obviously, opportunities for people to become injured,” said Schmidt.
“We know that our call volumes have increased across the board. It’s during those calls there’s, obviously, opportunities for people to become injured.” – WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt
WFPS crews responded to 122,300 calls in 2021, up from 108,800 throughout 2020.
Schmidt said emergency crews also encounter especially stressful incidents, including some cases where they have been spat on, threatened or otherwise abused, at times by individuals experiencing a drug-induced psychosis.
The City of Winnipeg has asked provincial agency Shared Health for 10 more ambulances and 110 more paramedics to help meet the demand for emergency medical help. That call was recently repeated when WFPS revealed ambulances response times are now “pushing 15 minutes” due to the resource shortage, which is several minutes longer than the target of eight minutes, 59 seconds.
In a brief email, a Shared Health spokesperson said the province is working on the issue.
“We continue to make efforts in partnership with the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service to find efficiencies that improve patient services and free up ambulances to respond to higher-acuity calls,” the statement said.
Firefighter paramedics are proud to ensure better response times to medical calls but the reliance on their overtime to fill staffing gaps isn’t sustainable, said Tom Bilous, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.
“You can see why sick time is going up. The guys are… getting burnt out, they’re exhausted,” said Bilous. “It’s having a toll on our members, our members’ families and work-life balance.”
At least 50 more Winnipeg firefighters are needed to ensure adequate staffing levels and response times, the union leader said.
The union that represents Winnipeg paramedics also believes more staff are needed, noting existing shortages were magnified during the pandemic.
“It’s just… so much overtime, the call volume is so high, so there’s not a lot of time to recover from these high-stress situations. It’s really stressful and really difficult for these members to get the job done,” said Kyle Ross, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.
“When you’re already tired, I can see members not wanting to work that overtime shift… People need their time off to recover.”
The WFPS stressed it has taken several steps to prevent injury and illness and also support the recovery of staff, so they can stay healthy and/or return to work as soon as possible. That includes the recent additions of: a behavioural health nurse and clinical psychologist; a new app to connect staff with peer supports; and a threat management training program.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.