Ambulance employees seek unionization
EL CENTRO — American Medical Response ambulance paramedics and EMTs on Friday petitioned the company to be recognized as a union in order to negotiate better pay and working conditions.
The petition was prompted by the employees’ concerns with their reportedly demanding work schedules, issues with employee retention and recruitment, and impacted response times.
The petition asks AMR to respond to the employees’ request by Wednesday.
“We’re hoping that AMR accepts our union, and we can sit down to collectively bargain with them and work this out,” said Edgar Cordova, who has been employed locally as a paramedic
for the past seven years.
Should AMR, whose headquarters is based in Greenwood Village, Colo., fail to voluntarily accept the employees’ request to be recognized as members of the United EMT Workers union, the employees would then have to formally vote on whether to join the union.
There are currently more than 60 individuals working as paramedics and EMTs for AMR in the Valley, Cordova said. A simple majority vote would unionize those employees.
Starting pay at AMR for paramedics is $13.50 while newly hired EMTs are paid the state’s minimum wage, $12.
Those wages are much less than the $19 offered to their counterparts in Yuma, and much less than what is provided to AMR employees in San Diego, Cordova said.
Local employees are asking for a reasonable wage increase that in turn should help with retention and recruitment.
Typically, an employee’s work schedule requires being on duty for 48 hours, followed by a four-day rest period. Instead, it is not uncommon for employees to work multiple days exceeding 48 hours.
In one recent instance, an employee reportedly was on call 24 hours a day for eight straight days, Cordova said.
“We just want more people, and the only way to attract more people is with better wages,” Cordova said.
Summer’s arrival has also posed a concern for employees. All of the company’s ambulances allegedly have more than 250,000 miles on them and are frequently in a state of disrepair, he said.
While transporting a patient to San Diego recently, Cordova said his ambulance became inoperable, prompting him to have to call for a replacement vehicle.
Cordova emphasized that he and his coworkers enjoy their line of work and serving the medical needs of the community. The majority of them had previously worked for Gold Cross ambulance services, which in February abruptly announced it was terminating its contract with the county.
Like its predecessor, AMR provides emergency medical response services countywide except for in Calexico, whose ambulance and paramedic services are provided by the city’s Fire Department.
During the county’s transition from Gold Cross to AMR, Cordova and his fellow employees reportedly worked for two weeks without pay, he said.
“Everybody that’s here is 100 percent dedicated and 100 percent passionate and wants what is in the best interest of the community of Imperial County,” he said.
The employees had presented the unionization petition to their supervisor in the lobby of El Centro Fire Department station 3, where his office is located.
He smiled, shook the hands of a few employees who he hadn’t met before and quickly returned to his office. AMR’s local supervisory staff did not return a request for comment.
The decision to accept the employees’ petition to be recognized as a union would likely be taken up by the company’s corporate office, said Ashley Mates, United EMS Workers Local 4911 organizer.
Mates was on hand Friday to provide support and assistance to the union hopefuls. The union represents about 4,000 EMTs and paramedics statewide.
Federal law makes it illegal to prevent or retaliate against employees who attempt to organize a union, she said.
Union representatives from outside the county are expecting to provide assistance to the local AMR employees, who will take the lead in any anticipated election or future union business.
“The important part of this is that it’s people doing the work here in Imperial County having a say in how the work gets done in Imperial County,” Mates said. “It’s creating a democratic workplace so that the people who are most affected by the work get to have a say in the process.”
Across the state, more and more private EMS companies are being unionized, resulting in considerable improvements in working conditions and patient services, she said. The bulk of them are members of the United EMS Workers union.
If AMR chooses not to accept the employees’ petition to be recognized as a union, an election for possible unionization would likely take place either in late July or mid-August.
Changes established by the Obama administration to guidelines governing the election process have sped up the time it takes for a vote to come before employees, Mates said. Prior to those changes, the process could extend for months or years.
The election process — which Mates said is anticipated since private EMS companies almost never voluntarily accept employees’ petitions to be recognized as a union — will also include a hearing in front of the National Labor Relations Board.
At the hearing, representatives of both parties will be given the opportunity to argue why an employee union should or should not be permitted, Mates said.
“You guys stay strong and stay together,” she told the employees.
In February, Gold Cross had announced that it would be backing out of its ambulance service contract with the county. That contract was supposed to be in place until Dec. 31, 2022.
The company reportedly was experiencing financial difficulties, the county reported at the time.
Currently, the county and AMR are operating under an extension of a 60-day emergency plan that parties reached in February, said Linsey Dale, county public information officer.
“The extension is necessary to allow time for the County and AMR to better assess the needs of the community to ensure that appropriate standards are put into place for future longterm agreements that will require a competitive (request for proposals) process.,” Dale stated in an email.