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BC paramedics warn dispute may affect Olympic service

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Ambulance workers in British Columbia are asking their colleagues across North America not to come volunteer at the Olympics until their labour dispute with the province is resolved, a request the union acknowledges could jeopardize service levels at the big event.

"People obviously need to be worried about whether or not an ambulance is going to be there," John Strohmaier, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., said Monday.

"It's not our intention to put patients in the middle of this dispute," he said. "We are certainly going to try, to the best of our ability, to be there for patients when they need us. We are asking those same people to be there for us."

The province's 3,500 paramedics were forced back to work through legislation earlier this month, ending a seven-month-old job action. Paramedics worked at reduced levels during the strike, since ambulance services are designated an essential service in the province.

Despite the legislation, paramedics continue to pressure the government for a better deal.

On Monday, about 200 paramedics and supporters showed up to protest outside a speech by Health Minister Kevin Falcon and earlier this month more than 80 called in sick over two days, idling dozens of ambulances.

The back-to-work legislation was passed weeks after the Olympics organizing committee, known as VANOC, wrote a letter to the government asking for a guarantee of paramedic services.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said the back-to-work legislation was not passed because of the pending Olympics.

"I know lots of paramedics, and I think the paramedics are professionals, they care about people, they want to provide the public with service," Campbell told reporters after an Olympic event Monday.

"It was unfortunate for all of us that we had to legislate people back to work, but it was about the H1N1, it was the pressure that was on the system, we spent literally millions of dollars trying to find a resolution to this. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible."

The ambulance workers, who are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 873, say they went on strike seeking better staffing levels that would result in faster ambulance response times, wage parity with other emergency responders and a multi-year contract.

They argue they're being stretched to the limit by the ambulance service's dependence on part-time workers, unpaid travel time and chronic overtime.

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