EMTs, who make a starting wage of just over the minimum wage, plan to strike Friday at noon. Their employer wants to hire out-of-state replacement workers, but is having trouble getting local officials to sign off.
Days before they plan to strike demanding better pay, some Seattle emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are arriving at work to find out-of-state replacement workers conducting ride-alongs to learn their way around the city’s emergency-response system.
The workers, flown in from California, Texas and other states, are meant to temporarily replace local unionized EMTs who plan to strike Friday at noon. About 200 EMTs and paramedics could be deployed in the Seattle area by Thursday, if employer American Medical Response (AMR) has its way.
AMR, a private company, contracts with the City of Seattle to provide some ambulance service in the city. The company’s Seattle employees, who belong to Teamsters Local 763, have been negotiating a new contract with the company for nearly a year. Union members voted in November to reject the company’s latest contract offer and authorize a strike. Saying that was its final offer, AMR has not met with the union to bargain since.
But AMR’s plan to replace the striking workers with outside employees hit a snag this week when the company failed to obtain state authorization it needs to deploy the workers. Because the out-of-state EMTs and paramedics are not certified in Washington, AMR needs approval from the Washington Department of Health to allow them to work.
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AMR asked for approval, but the Department of Health first told the company that a local government would have to make the request. This week, AMR asked King County to request the waiver, and it refused. The City of Seattle won’t help, either.
Obtaining the waiver would have required AMR to meet several requirements, including a determination by the local government that it would lose its sole provider of emergency medical services and that no other agency could provide similar service.
The county says AMR is not its sole provider of basic life support, according to a spokesman for the county’s public health department, which includes its Emergency Medical Services Division.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the city will not seek a waiver at this time and will “continue to review all options available.” Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine have both urged the company and union to continue negotiations.
In response, AMR reiterated that it will have about 200 EMTs “ready to provide service and meet the demands of the County’s EMS systems,” spokesman Jason Sorrick said in a statement. “If State and County regulators still choose to not grant a variance and place politics in front of patients, then that is their choice.”
The process has put local leaders in typically labor-friendly Seattle in the uncomfortable position of signing off on a plan that would send hundreds of temporary workers to cross the EMTs’ picket line.
Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of the county labor council MLK Labor, called AMR’s plan to hire replacement workers “vile.”
“It raises the intensity of the labor dispute in a way that’s negative and destructive, but scabs never win — not in Seattle,” Grant said.
AMR EMTs provide basic life support and transportation to the hospital. More highly trained paramedics who work for the Seattle Fire Department and Medic One respond to more severe advanced life-support calls.
Durkan’s administration has declined to share its contingency plan for the strike, but firefighters will likely play a role in replacing the striking workers.
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said Wednesday the Seattle Fire Department plans to use 11 reserve units with workers paid overtime to cover for striking EMTs and, if needed, will tap other private ambulance companies operating in the region. Herbold said Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins briefed council members on the plan.
Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Kristin Tinsley said the department is preparing internally, but would not release information about its plans until the strike happens.
The union representing Seattle firefighters has pledged support for the Teamsters, including “in the form of thwarting efforts by AMR to bring in nonunion replacement workers to provide [basic life support] transport in the City of Seattle,” Kenny Stuart, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 27, wrote in a letter Tuesday.
The Teamsters “fully understand that as sworn firefighters we are obligated to provide [basic life support] services, including transport when necessary,” he wrote, “and do not expect us to withhold any EMS services during the strike.”
The conflict between Teamsters Local 763 and AMR has been simmering for months. This summer, EMTs testified to the Seattle City Council, which approved a resolution urging Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration to seek better pay for the workers in the city’s contract with AMR.
Union members have said their current starting salary of $15.54 an hour makes it nearly impossible to live in Seattle. AMR has offered to increase that starting pay to $17, but the union argues that’s still just above Seattle minimum wage, which will increase to $16 for large employers in January.
AMR argues it can’t afford higher wage increases because a large portion of its patients are covered by government programs that offer low reimbursement rates for ambulance transports.
The company planned to pay replacement workers $16.90 per hour or, for salaried employees, their current salary plus a stipend, Sorrick said. All replacement workers would have their travel, lodging and meals covered by the company.