Paramedic strike looms

CORRECTION ON 11/14/08 -- A story in Thursday's Review-Journal on a possible strike by American Medical Response emergency medical services personnel incorrectly described the availability of paramedic transport units in the Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments. The Las Vegas Fire Department has 20 paramedic transport units, or teams, and nine reserve transport units. The Clark County Fire Department has 24 paramedic transport units and two paramedic fire engine units that can treat patients but not transport them.

Las Vegas and Clark County officials urged the area's largest ambulance service and the union representing its paramedics and emergency medical technicians to resolve a labor dispute that could lead to a strike Nov. 28.

Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said Wednesday that they are concerned that a strike by American Medical Response's paramedics and EMTs could jeopardize the health and public safety of Las Vegas residents and tourists.

"We urged them to resolve this because we are a tourist-based economy and the world does not need to hear that Las Vegas does not have the services of paramedics," Reid said at the Southern Nevada Health District, where he and Goodman spoke to reporters about the looming strike.

Reid and Goodman learned of the labor dispute early Wednesday. The two said they were unclear about what prompted Service Employees International Union Local 1107, which represents American Medical Response's paramedics and EMTs, to threaten a strike on the day after Thanksgiving.

AMR, under contract with the city of Las Vegas and Clark County, is responsible for 60 percent of the patient transports in those areas, said Rory Chetelat, emergency services manager for the Southern Nevada Health District.

"These are interesting and critical times in the City of Las Vegas and our community," Goodman said. "We don't need the added aggravation of a strike.''

Goodman said the issue between the two entities appears to be over what union is representing the interests of the paramedics and EMTs.

Once that is resolved, "I don't see how they can't just sit down take care of the issues at hand,'' Goodman said.

The contract for American Medical Response's paramedics and EMTs expired Oct. 31.

Within days of the contract expiration, SEIU 1107 sent its sister union -- the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics, or IAEP -- to handle negotiations, said SEIU 1107 Executive Director Ed Burke.

The day after IAEP approached the ambulance company, SEIU representatives went to the table to negotiate, Burke said.

American Medical Response refused to talk, he said.

AMR officials gave a different version of what happened in a press statement issued Wednesday afternoon. They accused SEIU Local 1107 of attempting to use IAEP to serve as the bargaining representative for AMR's local workers when it was not certified to do so.

AMR claims that under the National Labor Relations Act, it is an unfair labor practice for an employer to bargain with any group other than the labor organization that is certified by the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, to represent a specific group of employees.

"AMR has filed a petition asking the NLRB to resolve the matter, and if the NLRB validates the company's position, AMR will request an NLRB-supervised election, which would allow employees to vote on which group should represent them,'' AMR's press statement said.

The statement also said that if the NLRB validates the union's position and the agreement between SEIU and IAEP is found to be legal, the company will return to the bargaining table to negotiate a new contract.

Burke called AMR's move a "smoke screen.''

"They know who represents the paramedics and EMTs. They are just trying to break the union,'' he said. "We know they are having one-on-one meetings with paramedics and EMTs and asking them why they need a union.''

Burke said SEIU issued a strike notice on Wednesday. The SEIU's Web site said that emergency medical services professionals recently voted in favor of going on strike. Burke said a strike could mean that more than 100 AMR workers will be removed from the field at 6 a.m. Nov. 28.

Labor strife is nothing new between Colorado-based AMR and SEIU's sister union, the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics.

In April, about 300 AMR workers in Southern California went on strike and picketed three AMR locations.

The strike ended after three days when the two sides reached an agreement on a new contract that included 20 percent pay raises over four years.

During the strike, AMR used EMTs and paramedics from elsewhere in California and from out-of-state to work in place of the striking employees.

Five months later, the two sides averted a strike of AMR workers in Central California by agreeing to a contract three days before a walkout was set to begin.

Before reaching the agreement, the union said AMR planned to mandate unsafe shift schedules of up to 72 hours. That was reduced to 48 hours in the final contract, which also included a 13 percent pay raise and cost-of-living hikes over three years.

If the SEIU goes forward with the AMR strike, it could lead to delays in emergency services in Clark County and the city of Las Vegas, Reid and Goodman said Wednesday.

Reid said AMR has a contingency plan that would bring in replacement paramedics and EMTs from other states. But the idea of having ambulance drivers unfamiliar with Las Vegas streets and roads didn't sit well with Reid or Goodman.

"That's certainly not an ideal situation,'' Reid said. "We'd prefer them to be familiar with our community and that they have experience serving the streets of our community. Obviously, this is something the community wants to avoid.''

Fire chiefs from Las Vegas and Clark County said they also have contingency plans in case of a strike.

Las Vegas Fire Department Chief Greg Gammon said the department has 21 paramedics and nine more on reserve. He said four of the reserves are ready to step in and the others could be active within a day.

Clark County Fire Department Chief Steve Smith said his department has 24 paramedics and four reserves. They also can be ready to work within a day, he said.

AMR officials also said they would ask the health district to approve an emergency declaration so that certain requirements for replacement paramedics could be waived.

According to the health district, prospective paramedics must ride along with other paramedics for at least 120 hours before they are allowed to serve in the area.

Reporter Brian Haynes contributed to this story. Contact reporter Annette Wells at or 702-383-0283.