Telehealth associates working for Nova Scotia’s 811 phone line are speaking out through their union about how current wages are leading to difficulties retaining and recruiting workers, as a frequent turnover rate continues to impact the 24/7 health information service.
A release titled “811 workers speak out” from the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), which is the province’s largest union, says 811 workers are amongst the lowest-paid health-care workers in Canada.
The employees, who offer health advice, the transferring of more urgent calls to 911, and assistance in adding residents to the waitlist for a primary healthcare provider, currently make $18.44 an hour. The calculated living wage for Halifax, where the employees are based, is $23.50.
According to the province’s website, 325 patients receive care from an 811 nurse on a regular basis.
“We are experiencing higher than normal call volumes. It will take longer than usual to respond to your call,” a disclaimer on the service’s website read on Saturday.
Hugh Gillis, first vice president at NSGEU, said telehealth workers are currently under “extreme” pressures due to the position’s around-the-clock nature.
“It is unconscionable that these workers are making less than a living wage,” he said in the release.
There are currently only 17 telehealth associates working in Nova Scotia. They are employed by Emergency Medical Care Inc., which is contracted by the provincial government to operate the service.
“Staffing shortages have been so acute that workers have had to be mandated to work overtime, which is leading to worker fatigue and burn-out, and jeopardizing the service,” NSGEU’s release added.
In an interview with Global News, Gillis said he continues to hear from workers that it’s becoming increasingly challenging to live in Halifax with their current pay.
“It’s very difficult to retain staff and very challenging to recruit staff,” he said. “It’s simply not enough money.”
Despite launching the awareness campaign a few days ago, which included a video of an 811 worker anonymously sharing firsthand experiences from the current work environment, Gillis said NSGEU is yet to receive any response from the workers’ employer.
He said wage issues are leading to frequent turnover in a workforce already with limited resources, adding that “the first opportunity they (Telehealth workers) have to move on to something better, they’re out the door.”
In comparison, workers at the Halifax Regional Municipality’s 311 service, who have similar responsibilities, have a starting wage of $26.90.
“This government has said fixing healthcare is their number one priority and we know that virtual care is very much in the mix now and so this is a very important piece that needs to be addressed,” he said, adding that NSGEU will continue to raise this issue in hopes of increasing worker wages earlier than the contract end date in October 2024.
Alexandra Rose, a provincial coordinator with the Nova Scotia Health Coalition, a public health advocacy group, said as 152,000 people throughout the province are still without a family doctor. Many rely on 811’s services as a first resort.
“In Nova Scotia, we talk a lot about the lack of primary care with respect to family doctors, but 811 services are also primary care. They’re the first point of contact for anybody seeking trusted health information and advice on what their next steps are,” she said.
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Rose said as telehealth associates experience “burnout” and staff shortages, emergency departments will continue to see more patients arriving with less urgent issues.
“That creates more backlogs and more wait times in the emergency department,” she continued. “The only way to fix this is to hire more people, and you can’t hire more people without paying them a livable wage.”
According to NSGEU’s recent video, the service is actively looking to hire five more employees.
Rose said most people call 811 to get information on specific pains, discomforts, colds, and flu, adding that the 24/7 service is critical in reducing the volume of patients in hospital waiting rooms.
“We need those workers,” she said.
She said that she hopes to see improvements to wages agreed upon between 811 workers, Emergency Medical Care Inc., and the Nova Scotia government prior to their contract’s end to avoid bargaining and the risk of a strike.
“That would be worst case scenario in a field that’s already so short-staffed, so the best thing to do would be to reach an agreement on this before the agreement expires,” she said.
In a statement to Global News from Nova Scotia’s Department of Health and Wellness, an official said, “811 is a vital service to Nova Scotians and these operators are an important part of that care many families rely on.”
“The province is very focused on the recruitment and retention of all of our healthcare workers — that includes those at 811,” said Khalehla Perrault, a spokesperson for the department.
“We are aware of the challenges EMC is facing and are in discussions with the employer now about what mid-contract solutions might be possible.”
Gillis said as of now, there’s no specific timeline for when they’re expecting to hear back regarding their recent efforts.
“If we could bring their wages up, it’s going to go a long way to help with recruitment and also stabilize the workforce there,” he said. “We believe there’s definitely room for improvement and that’s what we’re looking to achieve.”
“We hope they take a serious look at this situation they find themselves in and address the concerns that we’re putting forward,” he said.