‘This used to be a job that could sustain you … it’s not anymore’: Kris Vickberg, porter, Vancouver

Kris Vickberg, age 53


Vancouver, B.C.

Yearly salary: $53,000 (including overtime and night premiums)


Kris Vickberg has been a hospital porter for slightly more than 20 years, beginning his career when he was in his 30s. He got into health care for the same reason a lot of people do: because he wanted to help others.

“I was pretty inspired by punk rock, and I still have those credos,” says Kris. “I just couldn’t see myself working for an oil company or McDonald’s or whatever. I wanted to be a force for good.”

Porters are an often overlooked, but absolutely vital, part of our health-care system. They transport patients, lab specimens and equipment around the hospital. They help nurses lift and transfer patients and take the patients where they need to go for necessary tests and treatments.  A late porter can hold up teams of nurses and physicians and quickly ramp up costs at hospitals. One highly cited 2018 estimate put the cost of operating room time, including supplies and wages, at $37 per minute, meaning a porter who’s just 15 minutes behind schedule could cost the system more than $550.

Porters in British Columbia are paid $26 an hour, or just over $50,000 a year, though they can make $3.20 more an hour for night shifts and get double pay if they work overtime.

But the cost of living in Vancouver, where Kris works and lives, has continued to rise and wages haven’t kept up. Kris was fortunate to secure a one-bedroom in a 1960s-era apartment building a few years ago, before housing costs “completely exploded.” His rent is manageable at $1,581 per month. He walks an hour to and from work most days, so he doesn’t have to pay for parking, and he estimates he clocks another 20 kilometres on the hospital floor, based on his colleagues’ step counters.

In 2023, Vancouverites were paying $2,200, on average, for a one-bedroom and $2,600 for a two bedroom, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing and Corporation. (These numbers include rent-controlled apartments – one-bedroom rentals that hit the market in 2023 averaged around $3,000). Unsurprisingly, Kris says, most of his porter colleagues live outside the city, and some have hour-long bus commutes.

Kris, who shares custody of an 8-year-old boy with special needs, also pays $500 in child support and another $480 per month for his son’s various therapies. He owns a car out of necessity, for when he’s with his son. After his expenses, Kris isn’t able to pay for extras, like vacations. “Money is always tight, but it’s all things that I need, so what can I do? My son gives me so much joy that it’s not something that I dwell on.”

Unlike nurses and care aides, who get pay increases with seniority, porters don’t get rewarded for years of service – despite the expertise they gain, like what to say to allay patients’ fears, how to expertly manoeuvre a gurney through a crowd, the best routes through a complicated maze of departments, and so on. That lack of seniority pay is “super unfair for our folks,” says Caelie Frampton, director of communications at B.C.’s Hospital Employees Union (HEU).

There have been some improvements, says Frampton.

In 2021, B.C. began phasing out privatized contracts for hospital workers in cleaning and food service – the decision to outsource these jobs 20 years earlier had resulted in lower pay and worse working conditions for the mostly female, and highly racialized, workforce. A year later, HEU negotiated cost-of-living adjustments for its workers, including porters. It was the first time in decades the union was able to successfully bargain for pay increases tied to inflation. While common in the 1970s and 1980s, cost-of-living adjustments have largely disappeared from workers’ contracts across many sectors.

“You feel like you’re constantly behind on tasks and people are always frustrated with you.”

Still, Kris says bigger changes are needed to keep most workers in the job. His profession suffers from a lack of proper training and on-the-floor management of employees, he says. Employees like him, who have “pride in the work and care about the patients they’re providing a service for,” end up working harder, taking on more patients to pick up the slack.

Even with hard work, “you feel like you’re constantly behind on tasks and people are always frustrated with you,” explains Paul, a colleague of Kris. “There’s the expression, ‘working hard leads to more work,’ and it’s true. There’s just really no end. You can’t get to the bottom of the task list.”

Paul says that low pay is a major contributor to the issues they have with staffing and says it is not uncommon for people to call out for shifts regularly. “If we were paid well enough that everyone showed up every day, we’d have enough porters.”

With most porters unable to afford to live in the city, Paul says that even a snow day that impedes their long commutes can leave the hospital without the majority of their porter staff.

Meanwhile, porters at his hospital are continually asked to do tasks that fall outside their scope of practice – changing and monitoring oxygen tanks; assessing if patients can stand or move to a bed or stretcher on their own; removing monitors.

“There’s a liability issue, and they should be paying us to administer oxygen,” says Kris. “But the nurse will hand you the oxygen tube and say put it to this flow, and if you say, ‘I’m not allowed to do that, that’s not my scope,’ they look at you like you’re an idiot. And you’d be slowing down every trip. So, you just do it.” Paul confirms that outside-of-scope requests are a frequent source of tension between nurses and porters.

On top of better pay, opportunities to deepen one’s skill set and gain commensurate pay increases could help with porter retention.

Carrie Fletcher, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto and vice president of human resources at St. Joseph’s Health System, points out that “there’s a variety of different people that we can train in different ways if we think outside of the box.”

Expanding the scope of porters and training them, for example, to assess whether patients can transfer to a bed without involving a nurse could improve patient care and allow nurses and other health workers to “focus on their core duties.”

Since 2020, B.C.’s Health Care Assistance Program allows people to work stocking supplies, delivering meals and performing other tasks in exchange for free post-secondary courses. At the end of the program, they’re promoted to a care aide position. In our research, we didn’t hear about similar programs for porters. A program that offered on-the-job training and helped porters attain an advanced designation and a higher pay rate could help with both porter retention and with filling gaps in patient care.

As it stands, reliable career porters like Kris are few and far between. Both Kris and Paul noted the huge turnover in the profession. And Kris is worried for his future. His home, along with much of the affordable rental stock along Vancouver’s Broadway corridor, will be demolished in the next few years to make way for the “Broadway Plan,” a series of commercial and residential redevelopments hugging a new subway line. “My housing (costs) will increase exponentially, but I have to stay in the city to be near my son.”

When Kris started as a porter 23 years ago in Vancouver, he says “it wasn’t a job you were going to purchase a home on, but it was a job that could sustain you … it’s not anymore – plain and simple.”


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Maddi Dellplain

Digital Editor and Staff Writer

Maddi Dellplain is a national award-nominated journalist specializing in health reporting. Maddi works across multiple mediums with an emphasis on long-form features and audio-based storytelling. Her work has appeared in The Tyee, Megaphone Magazine, J-Source and more.
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