By COLIN STAUB
An ambulance services contract that’s been in place since 1997 in Washington County will end this year. County officials rewrote the contract to require more modern services, like a computerized data sharing system, and they’re putting it out to bid for the first time in 26 years. Union paramedics in the Portland area say that’s an opportunity for a union employer to win the contract, replacing vehemently anti-union Metro West.
Until now, Washington County has simply renewed Metro West’s contract every 18 months. But in May 2022, the county Board of Commissioners announced a change in direction.
“Our current contract is more than 20 years old and does not provide the flexibility to make necessary changes that will modernize our system and allow for improved services,” Chair Kathryn Harrington said in a statement published by the board.
The board wants a contract that requires the vendor to use an improved dispatch system, report additional metrics, and use a data sharing system allowing other emergency response agencies to access information.
It’s a major contract, covering a county of more than 700 square miles with over 600,000 residents. The county released its request for proposals for ambulance services on Dec. 2. Proposals are due by Jan. 17, and the county expects to make a decision by mid-February.
Proposals won’t be public until the bid period closes, but the bid website shows that three vendors—Metro West, American Medical Response (AMR) and Falck Ambulance —have shown interest.
AMR provides medical transport in Multnomah and Clackamas counties, and in Clark and Cowlitz counties in Washington. Paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) at AMR have been unionized with Teamsters Local 223 since 1989. Falck provides ambulance services in Salem, and its employees are represented by the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics (IAEP), an SEIU affiliate.
Local 223 union stewards say bringing Washington County ambulance workers into the Teamsters would be a huge boost for bargaining power.
“That would put a majority of the state in the same union, in terms of EMS, and give us the best chance of making actual changes,” said Shelby Peterson, an AMR paramedic and union steward for Local 223. She said the larger bargaining unit would give workers power to work on quality of life improvements in future contracts, like better shift schedules and ensuring workers get enough rest between shifts.
AMR has had its share of labor strife—Local 223 and AMR had lengthy and at times contentious contract negotiations in 2022—but ambulance workers say the difference a union makes on an employer is real.
Charlie Train, a union steward at AMR, is a former Metro West paramedic. He remembers when Metro West changed workers’ health insurance in late 2017, doubling the deductible and the maximum out-of-pocket payments. Train was about to have a child and had been planning with the existing insurance plan in mind. The change meant he had to scramble to save more money before the child was due. Another time, Metro West combined workers’ vacation and sick time into a paid time off (PTO) system, and the way they implemented the change meant longtime workers lost a chunk of their accrued sick leave. Having no union meant workers had no say when those changes were made. The experience led Train to seek employment at a union shop, and he began working as a paramedic at AMR.
If Washington County selects AMR as the provider, unionizing wouldn’t be automatic; there would still need to be a union election at the new unit. And AMR hasn’t agreed to a card check or to neutrality, Local 223 business representative Austin DePaolo told the Labor Press. But it stands to reason that AMR, with its long relationship with the Teamsters, would be less combative to the union than Metro West.
In 2011, Local 223 ran an organizing campaign at Metro West in Hillsboro. The company mounted a standard anti-union campaign, urging workers to vote against the union with fliers and signs displayed at the company’s Hillsboro facility.
Metro West also retaliated against pro-union workers. One unfair labor practice charge, detailing how the company disciplined and ultimately fired a union supporter in the months after the campaign, eventually went before the NLRB’s three-member national board in Washington D.C.; the board found that the company had illegally retaliated against the worker.
But the tactics had an effect; when the workplace election was held, the union lost 124 to 76.
In a statement to the Labor Press, Leslie Sloy, secretary-treasurer for Local 223, said Teamsters haven’t forgotten Metro West’s actions, and support AMR’s bid in Washington County.
“We here at Teamsters Local 223 support an employer that in the past knows how to work with labor unions and supports family wage jobs that include adequate health care and retirement benefits and supports a strong community,” Sloy said. “In those regards the only company that fits that bill that we are aware of is AMR.”