EMS working without contract


By KENNETH BOOKS kbooks@lakecityreporter.com


It has been about six months since Columbia County's unionized Emergency Management Technicians and paramedics have sat down with representatives of the county to negotiate a new contract. The old contract expired Sept. 30, 2002.

"The EMS bargaining unit hasn't come back to the table yet," said County Manager Dale Williams. "We never did conclude negotiations for last year. The EMS local basically walked away from the table and never rescheduled a bargaining session and to the best of my knowledge has not asked for a bargaining session since."

Mike Jacobs, president of Local 3510, International Association of Fire Fighters, said negotiations have been stymied by the county's choice of bargaining agents.

"Between working and everything else, as a paramedic to go up against a labor attorney with all the resources of the county, it's been a little difficult," said Jacobs, who handles the negotiations himself for his local. "When Dale decided not to negotiate personally and put a labor attorney between us, that's when things got difficult."

The county's labor attorney, Mike Grogan of Jacksonville, is paid $175 per hour, Williams said. He agreed Grogan is a better negotiator than he is. "He's a professional. But the county doesn't instruct the labor attorney to go in during negotiations and be hard. That's not to anybody's advantage."

Either side could declare an impasse, which would then send the matter to an arbitrator. Williams said the county has considered it, but decided against it.

The negotiations seemed to be going relatively smoothly for a while. "There was dialogue both ways," Williams said. "The county made a proposal. The membership rejected it. They made a counter-proposal, which the county rejected." He said the county made another proposal, "which I don't think was taken before the membership. It was summarily rejected by the EMS bargaining team."

Jacobs said it was rejected because "It was the same as their previous offer, just under a different wrapper. They had given us an offer that was effectively about $19,000 the first year and the EMS bargaining team actually had gone so far as to agree to that amount, but tried to rework the distribution of it." He said the problem lay with a 3 percent raise earmarked for EMTs, who are required by the county to go to school to become paramedics within two years, at which time their base pay goes from $6 per hour to $8.50 per hour. "It seems ludicrous to give a 3 percent raise to people who would soon get a 40 percent raise," he said.

The hourly pay rates for full-time paramedics range from $8.50 to $9.60. Three captains make between $10.82 and $11.91 per hour, while interim director Charles R. Noah makes $14.88 per hour.

But Columbia County EMS employees are required to work 832 overtime hours per year, an average of 16 per week, which increases their take-home pay considerably. "People think because we might make $28,000 a year we're well paid, but we have to work a lot of extra time to reach that level," Jacobs said.

Meanwhile, Williams doesn't understand why the county and the union can't reach an agreement. "Last year, we negotiated a three-year contract with the public service union," he said. "They seem to be very happy with it." The public service union includes landfill, maintenance and public works employees.

The IAFF local includes 12 of 15 eligible employees. They are prohibited by state law from striking.

"We've been stonewalled by a labor attorney on the management side," Jacobs said. "Dale Williams has refused to talk to me for more than a year. We've been consulting a labor attorney to try to find out what our options are. We haven't retained a labor attorney, but I've talked to an attorney on behalf of the bargaining unit. Hopefully, we can come to some kind of an agreement soon so the people out there serving the citizens can get paid a decent wage."

Williams says it's time to hammer out an agreement. "Somebody's trying to negotiate through the press," he said. "That's not what they're supposed to be doing. They need to come back to the table and negotiate in good faith."