Paramedics given green light to retire at 60 without loss of benefits

'We have a good, strong sense that many employers will in fact welcome this change'

Paramedics given green light to retire at 60 without loss of benefits

The long wait is over – paramedics in Ontario can now retire at the age of 60 without sacrificing some of their benefits.

Recently, the Ontario Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (OMERS) amended the rules to provide paramedics the option of retiring at age 60 without having the pensions they’ve earned reduced.

Making that change a reality, however, took a long time, said Fred Hahn, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario president, in talking with HRD Canada.

“It took us a ridiculously long time to achieve this change for paramedics. They are safety professionals recognized like police and firefighters who are also in this same pension plan. And for more than a decade, we've been fighting to try to achieve this change.”

When the change in the plan text emerged a couple of years ago, OMERS came up with a converting methodology “that would see paramedics lose their already accrued pension,” said Hahn.

The union raised the issue, he said, and OMERS decided to suspend the change and to come up with a better methodology. However, it wasn’t until CUPE filed a complaint with the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario (FSAR) that the change finally happened, said Hahn.

In April, the Senate unanimously passed Bill C-228 which ensures workers’ defined benefit pensions are protected in the event of a company collapse.

Physical, mental challenges of job

Some workers deserve the chance to hang up their gear and retire earlier than 65, and paramedics belong to that group, said Hahn.

“It's an incredibly challenging job. It's physically challenging on your body. But increasingly, over the last number of years, we've come to learn that it's actually quite challenging to people's mental states. That post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by paramedics is huge.”

Hahn noted that while firefighters may be involved in situations that can expose them to risk of mental health problems maybe twice in a year, paramedics have to deal with these types of situations every day.

“It is remarkable that it's taken so long for all of us to recognize that, in some jobs, people deserve to leave them a little bit early, if they have a hope of being able to enjoy some form of retirement,” he said, mentioning the union’s decade-long fight to get paramedics the choice to retire at 60, and the two years since the change in the text.

“Certainly, paramedics are one of those jobs.”

Allowing workers to retire at 60 also makes sense for employers, said Hahn.

“The difficulty, the physicality of the work, because of the challenging hours that many of these paramedics have to work… Most of our members, frankly, have been working overtime for the last three years. Every week, overtime. And so at some point – as people get older, workers start to apply for long term disability. They simply are not able to do this work, and that costs the employer money. It costs workers money. 

“There's lots of benefits and advantages for employers to help us by helping to quickly negotiate these provisions and helping people to [actually do it].”

Overtime hours amongst Canadian healthcare workers in 2021 were at their highest in over decade, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), attributing the change to the pressure of the pandemic. 

Bargaining for early retirement

However, the union’s fight is not over. Hahn emphasized that the change is not automatic. “This change in the plan simply allows for this to happen,” he said.

“Anyone who represents paramedic workers is going to [have to] actually bargain and negotiate with employers to facilitate this being allowed to happen. We have a good, strong sense that many employers will in fact welcome this change, because they know, as we know – paramedic chiefs have said this for some years – this change needed to be made. 

“We're certainly here in the process of preparing information and materials for our locals to better understand what a bargain is. And to better talk with their employers about how to prepare workers for this new reality, to make sure that people have a better sense of the change.”

Unions and employers must also come together to call on governments to provide more funding to improve the situation of paramedics and their employers, said Hahn.

“We just saw the provincial government provide essentially free tuition for people to become police officers. And yet it can cost tens of thousands of dollars for people to train as paramedics.

“One of the things we've been saying quite clearly to our employers is [that] our relationship as employers and unions does not need to be adversarial. We can actually work together here to advocate for a better future. The challenges employers are facing — finding and attracting and retaining workers — tose are the same challenges our members feel. They're the ones working long shifts, they're the ones working [long hours] without enough co-workers, they're the ones working overtime.”

Some provinces have announced incentives to keep healthcare workers in the workforce.