American Medical Response (AMR) and the National EMS Association (NEMSA) -- the labor union that represents about half of AMR's unionized employees -- reached an agreement on Sunday, July 29 to avert a strike called to begin at 7 a.m. July 30, 2007. "Overall this workforce actually achieved more than what was demanded. We are very pleased in AMR's willingness to agree to a fair contract for these dedicated EMS professionals," says NEMSA President Torren Colcord. More than 1,000 paramedics, EMTs, dispatchers and wheelchair van workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine were prepared to stay off the job if NEMSA and AMR couldn't resolve issues of pay, benefits and labor law violations.
In a vote on July 18, 92% of AMR's EMS employees in those three states voted to strike if the company didn't meet the union's demands. On Sunday, July 29, in last-minute negotiations, AMR agreed to an approximate wage increase of 14.75% to 18.75%, agreed to correct health insurance disparities and agreed to resolve federal labor law violations.
AMR had offered a contract that would've effectively been a 1% wage cut. The benefits issue involved union members being asked to pay more for health insurance than operations employees and AMR's unilateral decision to stop their current policy of providing health coverage for new hires and upgraded employees 90 days after their start date. Instead, these employees were going to have to wait until January 2008 for their coverage to start.
According to NEMSA's Labor Relations Representative Jim Gambone, AMR violated federal labor laws with "unfair discipline practices. Discipline exercised in an inconsistent manner." He also says AMR implemented a "black box" road safety system without union bargaining as to how the system would be used to impose discipline.
Gambone says NEMSA and AMR reached an agreement because of the union's "hard-line stance." The other 4,000 NEMSA members, as well as EMS workers in other bargaining units and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, vowed to not cross picket lines. The International Association of Fire Fighters also pledged total support of NEMSA by advising its members to not cross picket lines or perform any work for AMR, including management duties. NEMSA promised not to have any picket lines in front of hospital emergency departments or fire stations that house AMR ambulances to ensure EMS services were delivered as efficiently as possible.
Massachusetts would have been the hardest hit by a strike because AMR provides primary 9-1-1 response for 18 Massachusetts cities. The Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts and the commonwealth of Massachusetts developed a contingency plan to provide EMS service to areas that would have been affected by the strike. The plan included a Joint Coordination Center (JCC) staffed with people from various EMS and public safety organizations. Communities affected by the strike would made hourly reports -- by telephone or via a Web site -- on the status of EMS calls, mutual aid availability and immediate needs for assistance.
New Hampshire and Maine had also worked out plans through mutual aid agreements and possible overtime arrangements to keep the EMS system functioning as smoothly as possible. However, there were concerns about the impact of major events.
Fortunately, EMS in New England is fully functional on July 30, but the threat of the strike may have some unintended consequences in the future. Editorials in local papers raised the possibility of replacing private ambulance companies as EMS providers with fire department-based EMS, because EMS is an essential service that shouldn_t be impacted by profit motive.
AMR, a division of Colorado-based EMSC, is the largest ambulance company in the U.S. NEMSA, founded in 2004, is the sole organization that represents only EMS workers.
Ann-Marie Lindstrom is a JEMS contributing editor.