Workers who operate Nova Scotia’s 811 telehealth system are sharing how staff shortages are impacting them, describing 811 as “close to collapse.”

On Tuesday, the union representing telehealth associates shared the first video in a series called ‘Telehealth Associates at 811 Speak Out.’ In the videos employees filmed with the union, they discuss the challenges around staffing and their expanded work scope. 

Noting that the workers may face disciplinary actions for speaking out, the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union (NSGEU) concealed their identities. 

“We spend a lot of time trying to calm people. It’s a very emotional job at times,” a worker said in the video. 

Telehealth associates are paid $18 an hour. As reported here last month, the NSGEU said these employees are among the lowest paid healthcare workers in Canada. This, they said, was making it “nearly impossible” to retain staff.

In a news release Tuesday, the union said staffing shortages have led to workers being mandated to work overtime, “leading to worker fatigue and burn-out, and jeopardizing the service.”

“While the employer has moved all workers up to the top of their existing payscale, that still means these workers are making $18.44 an hour, which is well below what is considered a living wage in Nova Scotia, and eight dollars an hour less than people doing similar work for HRM’s 311 service,” the news release said.

The 811 service is based in Halifax, where a living wage is $23.50 an hour.

“It doesn’t end with just putting a call in the queue. Right now we are looking for five new people,” the anonymous worker said in the video released Tuesday. “However, with the pay scale as low as it is, nobody wants this job.”

The union is continuing to call on the province to “immediately reopen” the current contract negotiated in 2018 and set to expire in 2024 in order to “address low wages in the face of unprecedented inflationary pressures.”

There are currently 17 telehealth associates employed by Emergency Medical Care Inc. The union describes them as the first point of contact for those who call 811 to receive 24/7 medical advice. They gather information and determine if the caller needs to speak with nurses or, in the case of an emergency, they transfer immediately to 911.

Telehealth associates also help people add their names to the province’s family physician waitlist. 

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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