Saying some EMTs make just above the minimum wage, the union representing about 450 EMTs plans to strike beginning Dec. 21 if they haven’t reached a new contract deal with their employer.
Hundreds of unionized emergency medical technicians (EMTs) in Seattle have set a deadline of Dec. 21 to go on strike, calling into question how the city plans to respond to people in medical crisis if they walk off the job.
City officials say they are working on a plan, but won’t say what it is until a strike is called.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration “began its contingency planning over three weeks ago” when officials learned of a potential strike, said Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice. Prentice declined to elaborate, saying in an email, “The city is exploring a range of contingency plans that we will share in the event of a strike.”
The EMTs work for American Medical Response (AMR), a private company the City of Seattle contracts with to transport some patients to the hospital.
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Teamsters Local 763, the union representing the EMTs, has been negotiating with the company since the start of the year. Members overwhelmingly rejected the latest contract offer last month and the union notified AMR Monday that they plan to set up pickets beginning at noon on Dec. 21 if a deal hasn’t been reached.
The two sides are stuck on issues of pay and health care. According to the union, AMR currently pays starting EMTs $15.54 an hour and has offered to increase that to $17 an hour. The union argues that is still barely above Seattle’s minimum wage, which will increase to $16 an hour for large employers in January.
Liz Brown, business agent for Teamsters Local 763, said AMR has refused to meet with the union for bargaining since members rejected the contract offer last month. Teamsters Local 763 represents about 450 EMTs, according to Brown.
AMR said in a press release Tuesday that in the event of a strike it will use other personnel from across the state and country and will limit non-emergency transport services to local hospitals.
The company claimed the union is demanding pay equal to what AMR employees receive in other cities where they are paramedics trained to respond to more advanced calls.
“Ultimately, the union’s wage demands would force either the city to provide millions in subsidies to AMR to maintain operations, or the city’s fire department would need to take over the services,” the company said.
A strike by AMR’s EMTs would not fully halt emergency response in the city but could create logistical challenges. In most cases, Seattle firefighters are the first to respond to emergency calls; how people are transported to the hospital afterward depends on their condition. AMR transports patients in need of basic life support, which covers a wide range of incidents including overdoses, mental-health calls and some strokes. Medic One, which is staffed by more highly trained paramedics, typically transports people in need of advanced life support, including most cardiac incidents.
In a letter Tuesday, Durkan urged the Teamsters and AMR to keep bargaining. “Our community is counting on the parties to return to the table to resolve the current labor dispute that includes strong benefits and wages for the employees delivering these critical services,” Durkan wrote.
As the EMTs have been negotiating with the company, Seattle also renegotiated its contract with AMR this year. Amid those negotiations, the Seattle City Council approved a resolution in August calling on Durkan’s administration to seek better pay for the EMTs. The resolution also asked several city departments to provide the City Council with data comparing wages and benefits for EMTs in cities with similar costs of living.
As the council considered the resolution, AMR representative Mike Andrews said during a public meeting that of the people AMR transports in Seattle, 70 percent use Medicaid or Medicare and another 15 percent are uninsured. “You can imagine how that impacts our revenue,” he said.
The city’s current contract with AMR, which was signed in October and runs through 2021, includes the same language about pay as the previous contract. It requires AMR to provide workers with pay and benefits “substantially equivalent” to the average pay for private EMTs in similar-sized cities with similar costs of living.
Seattle City Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant voiced support for the union.
“The Teamsters deserve our support — whether through standing on strike lines, working toward long-term budget solutions or an alternate vehicle for EMT services, and I stand at the ready,” Mosqueda said in a statement Tuesday.
In a letter to Durkan Tuesday, Sawant said the mayor had failed to respond to the council’s concerns.
“The company’s intransigent bargaining position with the Teamsters, made possible by your complete failure to follow the direction of Resolution 31831, is now placing the life of every Seattleite needing Basic Life Support services at risk,” Sawant wrote.
Sawant also criticized details of the new city contract, including an increase in the base rate AMR can charge per transport from between $580 and $729 to $1,650. Prentice, Durkan’s spokesman, said the mayor’s office “reject[s]” Sawant’s characterization of the contract, but would not elaborate.