PORTLAND, Ore. Unionized workers for the Portland area's largest ambulance service rejected a contract offer and authorized a strike, union leaders said Wednesday.
But the union set no strike date, and the workers employer agreed to extend their contract 15 days to provide more time to bargain. With the contract extension, the earliest a strike could occur is July 16.
"We're hopeful that the sides will continue to negotiate and come to an agreement," said Dr. Gary Oxman, Multnomah County health officer.
The union, the National Emergency Medical Services Association, represents roughly 600 emergency medical technicians, dispatchers and paramedics in Oregon and southwest Washington. They work for American Medical Response, known as AMR.
A strike would affect Multnomah and Clackamas counties in Oregon, and Clark and Cowlitz counties in Washington, where the ambulance company provides service.
County officials and the company said they have developed backup plans in case of a strike.
Oxman said AMR is contractually bound to continue service during a strike, presumably using replacement paramedics.
An AMR spokeswoman, Lucy Drum, said she did not know whether the company is lining up replacement workers. However, she said, "We have contingency plans in place."
AMR's contract calls for the company to respond to emergency calls within eight minutes at least 90 percent of the time. If AMR failed to answer calls or arrived too slowly, Clackamas and Multnomah counties could declare AMR in breach of its contract. Oxman said the counties then could seize AMR's ambulances and use multimillion-dollar letters of credit posted by AMR to run the service.
The Portland Fire Bureau and Gresham Fire Department have agreed to run the medical transport system temporarily if needed, Oxman said.
In Multnomah County, the city firefighting agencies, the Port of Portland and two rural fire protection districts staff enough paramedics to provide first-responder coverage to nearly all county residents. Multnomah and the other counties pay AMR to supplement fire agency paramedics with on-site emergency care and transport to hospitals.
The labor dispute centers on wages and employee health benefits. Jeff Birrer, a paramedic and union spokesman, said the pay raise AMR offered "doesn't come close to bringing us up to parity with other West Coast providers, or with Metro West in Washington County or Rural Metro in Salem."
Birrer said union members also object to the company's proposal to require workers to pay 25 percent of health insurance premiums and shoulder more out-of-pocket costs.
Drum, the AMR spokeswoman, said the company can no longer afford to fully cover health insurance premiums because of rising medical costs.
The company is offering a 20 percent wage increase over three years, which is on par with other West Coast employers, with the cost-of-living factor taken into account, Drum said. AMR pays paramedics an average of $50,000 a year in the Portland area, she said.
AMR is a unit of Emergency Medical Services Corp., a publicly traded, Colorado-based company that netted $39.1 million on revenues of $1.93 billion last year.
Birrer said union leaders plan to present a contract proposal to AMR today and resume bargaining.
"Our hope is to settle this thing without having a strike or any disruption in service," he said.