ST. GEORGE – Unionized paramedics and EMTs in St. George voted Saturday not to strike but rather engage in an informational campaign aimed at alerting the public to what they claim are unfair labor practices on the part of Gold Cross Ambulance.
“We looked at it, looked at the impact on the community, and decided it just wasn’t in the community’s best interests to go on strike at this time,” Paramedic Chris Bown said as he held up a sign and picketed with union members and their families at the intersection of River Road and St. George Boulevard Saturday afternoon.
A number of Gold Cross Ambulance employees joined the Utah Teamsters Union last year and entered into negotiations with Salt Lake City-based Gold Cross Ambulance on a number of issues. Employees have claimed they are underpaid, overworked and deal with poor working conditions.
Though talks originally stalled at the end of May, they picked up again in July, only to falter once again over a question of whether or not Gold Cross would sign off on withholding union dues from employee paychecks. It is something company President Mike Moffitt told the union repeatedly Gold Cross would not do.
The union dues issue
July 17 was the last negotiation session, Moffitt said. At the end of the day, around 6 p.m. or so, he said, the union ended talks over the question of the union dues. When that was rejected, they took everything else off the table that had previously been agreed to, Moffitt said.
The matter of dues was reconfigured here and there and resubmitted for negotiations, but it was shot down each time by Gold Cross, he said.
“It was not satisfactory to the company’s desires and we told them that for a year – that we’re not going to do it,” Moffitt said, adding the language attached to the item was broad. “… Further than union dues – assessments, initiation fees, other fees assessed by the union and that language – it’s one of the things we’re uncomfortable with. We’ll not pay the bill for, or be the bill collector for, the union.”
The dues issue was withdrawn by the union in a counterproposal sent to Gold Cross on Thursday, in the “11th hour,” Moffitt said. While dropping the dues issue, the proposal puts forth items previously agreed upon in negotiations before talks tanked again.
Moffitt said the actions of the union have basically reset the negotiation process at this point.
“They’re going to have to go back to the table and negotiate the points again,” he said.
Accusations of bad faith
“I’d like people to know Gold Cross is breaking the law,” Spencer Hogue, secretary treasurer for the Teamsters 222, said. He was also among those picketing Saturday afternoon.
In a press release issued prior to the picketing, Hogue wrote the following:
The union has made multiple attempts in the last week to conclude bargaining with the company. The most recent attempt was Thursday July 23rd at which time the union agreed to unconditionally withdraw the one remaining issue the company had both publicly and in negotiations claimed was the hold up for resolution. There are no remaining issues and the company still refuses to conclude bargaining. They are playing games with the health and well-being of the public in St. George.
While picketing, Hogue also accused Gold Cross of improper staffing and changing work conditions on the employees during negotiations and engaging in bad-faith bargaining.
The Teamsters currently have six charges filed against Gold Cross Ambulance with the National Labor Relations Board, with a seventh to be filed Monday.
“We have a contract,” Hogue said. “Everything has been agreed upon and they still refuse to sign it. … The reason we’re out here is they refuse to bargain in good faith.”
Other issues and Gold Cross refutations
A reason the unionized employees decided not to strike were concerns over the staffing Gold Cross would bring in to cover for the striking workers, Bown said. As the fill-in workers were being brought in from Salt Lake City, they wouldn’t be familiar with the area, and that would possibly impact the level of service to the city, he said.
“The staffing plans put forth by the company are insufficient to provide the public the coverage and quality of care they deserve,” Hogue wrote in the press release.
Moffitt said the union had no idea what Gold Cross was going to do. In anticipation of a potential strike, 11 Gold Cross employees from northern Utah came down to make up the shortfall, Moffitt said. Additional ambulances were also brought in.
As for the medics’ knowledge of the area – or lack thereof – Moffitt said many of them were involved in staffing Gold Cross ambulances in St. George during its first few months of operation in 2013 and were already familiar with the area.
“The community is not at jeopardy,” Moffitt said. “We have more than enough people here to do the work.”
Other issues – which appear to have been resolved, yet remain in limbo until negotiations start anew – related to pay and working excessive hours.
Between five and eight paramedics left Gold Cross earlier this year to join the Las Vegas Fire Department, Bown said. They did so because they weren’t able to pay their bills on the wages Gold Cross was paying them, he said.
“We have people that want to stay here, and we need the company’s help to get to a point where they want to stay,” Bown said.
The loss of staff has led to some of the paramedics taking on additional shifts to cover for the staffing shortage, Bown said.
“It’s been an impact to our service and staffing levels,” he said.
Moffitt called the pay issue another smokescreen put up by the union.
“Just like any other business, there’s turnover,” Moffitt said. “The Las Vegas Fire Department had a test and were hiring this spring, and we had five guys that were lucky enough to get jobs down there. Now, those guys did not go to Las Vegas for any other reason than they wanted to go to Las Vegas to become firefighters. … They did not go down there because we didn’t pay them an extra dollar an hour. … They went because they wanted to go into fire service.”
Losing the paramedics to Las Vegas has caused staffing issues, Moffitt said, but the company is bringing on new hires and should be back to full staff by the end of the summer.
As to the issue of people working extra hours to cover the shortage, Moffitt said, the company has never forced overtime. Those who took it on did so because they wanted to – it was voluntary. Gold Cross doesn’t like to see people work more than 36 hours due to safety concerns, he said.
Employees who work 12- to 24-hour shifts are also able to bid on which shifts they want based on seniority, Moffitt said.
“It’s hard to complain about a job you took with both eyes opens,” he said.
“This is just the beginning,” Bown said.
Both Bown and Hogue said the union will continue to picket, hand out fliers outlining their grievances with Gold Cross, and utilize the media until the company comes back to the table.
For the immediate future, Moffitt said, the additional ambulances and staff will be in St. George for at least the next three or four days. Service will continue undisturbed, as it did when Gold Cross had to start operations early in the wake of Dixie Ambulance Service’s early closure in 2013.
“We didn’t drop the ball then; we don’t intent to drop it now,” Moffitt said.
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