To unionize or not to unionize? EMTs, paramedics seek answer

By Jeff Burlew

DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER


Leon County paramedics and emergency-medical technicians will vote by the middle of next month on whether to unionize.

The state Public Employees Relations Commission approved an agreement between the county and the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics on Tuesday that sets up an election by the middle of next month. A date hasn't been set.

The move came after 38 of 51 full-time paramedics and EMTs with the county's Emergency Medical Services signed cards supporting the election, according to union official Matt Levy.

Witt Skiver, a paramedic who supports the union, said some workers think it can help bring about better pay and working conditions as well as an improved ambulance system.

"I would like to boast that we are the best service in Florida," he said, "but we have some way to go before we get there."

The EMS division has had its ups and downs since the county took over the service from Tallahassee Memorial Hospital at the end of 2003. Chief Dan Moynihan was fired in February in the wake of a sexual-harassment scandal involving another EMS official and a paramedic.

Skiver said the union effort started during Moynihan's tenure because some workers were upset about his management style. He said the situation has improved since Tom Quillin was hired as chief in March.

County officials, meanwhile, are urging EMS workers to vote in the union election. They said if only 10 people vote in the election, a simple majority of six would determine whether or not to unionize.

"The outcome of this election will directly affect how your future pay and benefits are determined," County Administrator Parwez Alam wrote in a memo to EMS workers. "It is important that you make an informed decision with respect to whether or not it is in your best interest to be represented by the union."

Quillin said he doesn't think a union is needed. And he said such a move could lead to division among those who support the union and those who don't.

"We'd have to negotiate wages and benefits and working conditions with the union," he said. "And we think we have a very good package now. And we don't feel the employees need a union to negotiate for them, but certainly we support their right to have one if that's what they want to do."

Quillin added that he has an open-door policy with workers to discuss issues or problems. He said the service has made improvements since he took over the chief's post. The county's budget calls for addition of a new ambulance staffed by eight new EMS workers, but some think even more ambulances are needed.

The county printed a flier about the union effort and posted it at EMS headquarters. Though the flier does not ask workers to vote against the union, it points out several negative aspects of union representation.

It says that workers' current rights and benefits would be up for negotiation and that every worker would be represented by the union, even if they didn't vote for it. It also says that the majority of dues paid by union members are spent on salaries and benefits of union officers and employees.

Levy, a director of organizing for the union, said he can't promise that pay and benefits will increase. But he said union workers generally earn 20 percent more than their nonunion counterparts. The union represents about 10,000 workers in 36 states. It has added about 1,000 members in several Florida counties over the past couple of years.

Several years ago, the county's public-works employees voted against joining a union. The Tallahassee Police Department and the Tallahassee Fire Department have union representation. The Leon County Sheriff's Office does not.