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Latest News - February 2015

February 2, 2015
SW Ambulance union may strike if final negotiations fail
By: Yoohyun Jung

Southwest Ambulance employees have authorized a strike if final negotiations between its union and Rural/Metro Corp. over employee benefits fail.  The local I-60 chapter of the International Fire Fighters Association, representing about 800 employees, voted in favor of having the strike as an option to settle the years-long dispute with its parent company over retirement benefits, longevity pay and overtime.

Four additional negotiations in a series of nearly 50 meetings will take place this month. The union would have to give a 10-day notice to the company if a strike were to happen “It’s been this very big struggle,” said chapter president Kevin Burkhardt. “We’ve been trying to work on this behind closed doors for the last three years.”

The labor contract between Southwest Ambulance employees and Rural/Metro expired in September 2012, he said. Since March of that year, the union and management have been trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a new labor contract.  The union alleged that Rural/Metro illegally reduced pension benefits for nearly 1,100 employees by changing the retirement benefit formula in 2007 without properly informing employees, and withheld longevity pay for senior employees.

The union is asking for $8.7 million in lost pension money. Burkhardt said it is not negotiating for financial gain but rather, contesting unfair labor practices.  It took the pension issue to the National Labor Relations Board after discovering a discrepancy in pension disbursement. An arbitrator found the company violated the terms of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act by failing to send notices to all employees about the changes.

Greg James, west division president of Rural/Metro, said the former union leadership agreed to the changes in the benefit formula, which the company wants to continue using. It has appealed the arbitrator’s decision and the case is ongoing, he added.  Retirement benefits, longevity pay and overtime are things afforded by having a contract in place, he said. That way, the employer can assure that the quality of labor meeting its expectation will be provided in exchange.

“At the end of the day, we’re a business,” he said. “It makes sense for us to provide a fair and competitive wage in the market. We absolutely want to do that. But we need a contract in place.”  Should a strike take place, Rural/Metro has a contingency plan to address emergency response delays, James said.  Overtime will be made available for other Rural/Metro employees in Arizona who are willing to take shifts. The company has made arrangements with fire departments in the area that will staff Southwest Ambulance vehicles with paramedics.

The Arizona Department of Health Services would expedite the process of state licensure for potential Rural/Metro employees coming from out of state, James said. But that would be a last resort, and the company would not try to circumvent the necessary training or standards.

Emergency service providers do not want to lose the public’s trust because of service delays caused by work stoppage, but if an agreement cannot be reached, the union would be forced to exhaust that option, said Burkhardt, calling that the worst-case scenario.  “The employees are kind of backed against a wall,” he said.

In an address to the Sahuarita Town Council last week, Green Valley Fire District Chief Chuck Wunder assured town leaders he was working closely with the Rural/Metro to draw up contingency plans. Green Valley Fire covers a portion of Sahuarita “Some of those contingencies include the possibility of the Green Valley Fire District working in conjunction with them, (Rural/Metro),” Wunder said.  An additional backup plan, briefly mentioned by Wunder, has the fire district working with neighboring first responders to temporarily provide ambulance services.

“We’ve secured the necessary resources to provide ambulance transport services not only within our fire district but we’ve reached enough depth in that plan to include the Sahuarita area as well,” Wunder said.




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