Winnipeg paramedics are on track to work thousands of additional overtime hours this year, a fact some fear will heighten reportedly high levels of stress and burnout.
Paramedics worked a total of 7,197 overtime hours throughout 2019 but had already worked 10,389 extra hours this year by Sept. 26, according to the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.
WFPS Chief John Lane said the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t likely the sole cause of that surge but he believes it’s adding to existing pressures.
"When you add COVID-19 on top of a system that is already really working beyond its capacity, that just really compounds the stresses that we see," he said.
Paramedics experiencing any symptoms of the coronavirus have had to take off work, and some also completed isolation periods, leaving fewer staff available.
Lane has recently lobbied for 10 additional ambulances and 120 more paramedics to meet high emergency call volumes. Discussions with Shared Health are ongoing.
“When you add COVID-19 on top of a system that is already really working beyond its capacity, that just really compounds the stresses that we see." — WFPS Chief John Lane
Lane said he also expects to ask the city for more money to cover WFPS overtime costs next month, though the exact amount is still being determined.
In the meantime, he’s concerned about employee burnout; paramedics remain extremely busy throughout their shifts.
WFPS data shows 6,007 paramedic hours have been lost due to psychological Workers Compensation Board claims to date in 2020. That’s jumped from 1,842 hours in 2019.
The numbers display some of the significant demands on emergency workers, said Ryan Woiden, president of the paramedics union Local 911, which is in the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.
"In my 20 years that I’ve spent here… I’ve never seen overtime offered as frequently as it is," said Woiden.
The union leader said he’s heard some paramedics have received multiple requests to work overtime within a few hours, since it’s become tougher to find staff to fill extra shifts. While at work, paramedics also face very high workloads, he said.
"As the calls back up, there leads to there being zero breaks on a shift whatsoever," said Woiden.
Jennifer Setlack, a former Winnipeg paramedic, conducted a research study that found 86 per cent of WFPS ambulance paramedics "met the cutoff for exhaustion-related burnout" in the period from late 2018 to early 2019. Setlack said rising overtime hours could be expected to add to workers’ stress.
“In my 20 years that I’ve spent here… I’ve never seen overtime offered as frequently as it is.” — Ryan Woiden, president of the paramedics union Local 911
"On an individual level, the people I’m still in contact with, it’s taking a huge toll. We haven’t added any (net) new ambulances since 2011, so I feel like a lot of these overtime hours could have been avoided by being a little more proactive," said Setlack.
Overtime hours for the entire WFPS, including firefighters, also rose over the past year, from 52,211 hours in 2019 to 62,514 hours for this year so far.
Lane noted firefighters tend to work an average of 42 hours a week and are later compensated with time off instead of extra pay, which contributes to the number of overall overtime hours required.
Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said he believes the city should hire more firefighters to reduce the need for overtime.
"We don’t have sufficient firefighters to run the fire trucks we (have), so we need to use overtime," said Forrest. "They could actually save money by hiring firefighters. At the very least, we’re probably 40 to 50 firefighters behind."
While Forrest said he hasn’t received complaints about extra work from his members, he believes the workload for firefighters has also increased in recent years.
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.