Pandemic Pay Gap 

Alameda County paramedics and EMTs threaten to strike over new contract

click to enlarge LIGHTS AND SIRENS: Alameda County paramedics picketed last week in downtown Oakland as contract negotiations with Falck, the county’s 911 ambulance provider, became contentious.

PHOTO BY STEVEN TAVARES

LIGHTS AND SIRENS: Alameda County paramedics picketed last week in downtown Oakland as contract negotiations with Falck, the county’s 911 ambulance provider, became contentious.

Alameda County paramedics picketed last week in downtown Oakland following months of fruitless labor negotiations with Falck, the county's 911 ambulance provider. Both parties seem far apart on the union's demand for wages on par with neighboring counties.

Union members—represented by the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE) Local 510—also picketed last week night at the Falck offices in Hayward following 19 bargaining sessions with the Denmark-based company since last February. The union's contract expired Aug. 31.

Paramedics in Alameda County earn 15–20 percent less pay than those doing similar work in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties, said Dary Sardad, a national representative for NAGE Local 510.

"The cost of living is the same," he said. "So, how is it that we're so far behind?"

Ongoing labor negotiations between Falck and its paramedics highlight the continuing stress health care providers and their workers face during the pandemic. Labor negotiations between nurses and Alameda Health System, the health care provider that operates Highland Hospital in Oakland, San Leandro Hospital and Alameda Hospital, have been acrimonious for months.

"We're not asking for the moon," Sardad said. "We don't want to endanger anyone on the street. We want to provide 911 service. On the other hand, we can't be held hostage to not doing further work actions by the argument that we're abandoning the patient. That's in Falck's lap, not ours."

Last week, Falck offered annual wage increases and cost-of-living adjustments worth 2–6.7 percent, according to a statement by the company.

"At a time when the pandemic and recession have challenged the well-being of our county, state and nation, we want to ensure that our first responders are compensated fairly," said Carolina Snypes, director and chief of Falck's Alameda County operation.

Falck officials said the average pay of EMTs and paramedics in Alameda County is about $100,000 a year. Sardad scoffed at the assertion. "Yeah, that's working 96 hours a week," he said. "That's a lot of overtime. You're never going home."

Although Falck has not furloughed any employees during the pandemic, even as calls for service dropped significantly last spring due to the shelter-in-place orders, the healthcare provider had previously threatened job cuts in April. The union contends Falck's finances are sound, noting the entire company earned $2 billion in profits last year, along with $500 million during the first quarter of 2020, despite a downturn in service.

Union officials described labor negotiations as "barely moving," although they acknowledge recently achieving some movement.

"They've come a little closer on personal time-off," Sardad said, "but that was really the only step they made. They put a little more money into it, but we are still not anywhere close to where we need to be."

With such a large gap between the two parties, the possibility remains the union may be heading toward a work-stoppage at some point.

"I can say this much, we're not leaving any options off the table," Sardad said.

Jennifer Cowell, a paramedic for 26 years, said union members feel betrayed after they advocated strongly last year for Falck to win the county's 911 ambulance contract.

"We are in a dangerous position at our jobs on the best day, and right now, we have an invisible virus that can potentially make us very sick or kill us," she said. "We're doing our best to protect ourselves and give our patients the best care we can, and then we've got an employer that is trying to make cuts at every corner."

Last week, the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the California Nurses Association and International Longshoremen and Warehouse Workers Local 6 announced a five-day strike starting Oct. 7.

NAGE Local 510 union members plan to picket in solidarity, Sardad said.

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