Exeter Paramedics: Union ‘threatening’ us with our jobs
By Reggie Ellis
exeter – Embattled employees of Exeter District Ambulance have watched their district manager get placed on administrative leave, board members suggest they stole from the public ambulance company, and past managers accuse them of being negligent on the job. And now, the one group they pay to stand up for them is threatening to have them fired.
On April 3, full time employees at Exeter District Ambulance (EDA) received a letter from Greg Landers, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 517, informing them that if they did not fill out the proper paperwork to sign up for the union that there employment would be terminated. “If your application and check off authorization are not in our office by noon Thursday, April 6, 2017, the Union will serve you and your employer with a seven day notice of Employment Termination,” stated the letter.
“The letter was very threatening and I was surprised by that,” said paramedic Casey Randall.
Randall rejoined the public ambulance last fall after eight years with American Medical Response (AMR). She was among five former AMR paramedics hired by EDA when the national ambulance company closed its Tulare County operations last August. Randall continued to work as per diem paramedic during that time because she felt a connection to the district that felt more like a family than other ambulance companies.
But that connection has felt more like a disconnection since November when two new board members were sworn into EDA’s Board of Directors. Just two weeks later, one of those board members, Tony Miller, was accused of blackmailing an employee. A month later Miller led the charge to place District Manager Kim Damico on paid administrative leave and was in favor of having the employees join the Teamsters Union, a contract that was approved by the board on Nov. 1, 2016 prior to Miller taking the oath of office.
Landers did not return calls as of press time, but the Teamsters own contract clearly states they do not have the power to hire and fire employees. Article IX of the contract states that Exeter District Ambulance retains all of its normal rights with respect to management. “Such rights include, but are not limited to … layoff, terminate or otherwise relieve employees from duty of work or other legitimate reasons”. What the contract does say is that if a unionized employee “ceases to maintain good standing” with the Teamsters “the District will discharge such employee … from the union” under Article III of the contract.
Randall and other employees are now involved in a recall of Miller and board member Darinda Kunkel, in part for a conflict of interest involving the union. In the notice of intent to recall served to Miller and Kunkel, recall proponents chastised Miller for nepotism and cronyism because his wife, Linda Miller, is a billing clerk with the district and he himself is a member of the same union that represents EDA employees. “We feel it is a conflict of interest that Mr. Miller’s wife, Linda, is an employee in the office and that Mr. Miller is a Teamsters Shop steward, which is the union which currently represents EDA employees. Mr. Miller has voted on union matters which directly benefit his wife and the union he works for. Nepotism, cronyism and the potential for future votes that will directly affect his wife and the union are possible.”
Paramedic Bryan Wilson has only worked for EDA for the last few months, but said he has never seen a union do less for employees who needed the most help. In that time, Wilson said he has watched Miller publicly accuse EDA paramedics and EMTs of defrauding their time cards, lying to investigators and failing to perform in a professional manner. Yet the Teamsters have yet to stand up for those employees against the allegations, which have either been disproven or lack evidence to substantiate them.
“They say ‘we’re here for you’ but ‘pay us or you’ll be fired’,” Wilson said. “The only time we see them is when we owe them dues or when there is a vote on the contract.”
Both Randall and Wilson said they came to EDA because of the vision and passion for the job displayed by Damico. The paramedic-turned district manager inherited a financial mess following a mass exodus of management, officials, and professional contractors in 2015. In order to stay current with payroll and district expenditures, Damico tapped into the district’s Local Agencies Investment Fund (LAIF) but also violated the district’s policy regarding the reserve or “rainy day” fund by overdrawing it. In order to pay back the funds and right EDA’s finances, Damico expanded EDA coverage territory into the Lindsay area to fill the void left by AMR, the county’s largest ambulance provider in terms of staffing and call volume. Damico’s plan was on track to solve most of the district’s financial problems when she was placed on administrative leave. EDA ended the first half of the fiscal year on Dec. 31, 2016 with a net income increase of $167,000 over the same period in 2015, according to the district’s accountant. EDA was also $193,000 under budget for the first six months and was showing a net profit of $74,000.
“It’s one thing after another here but we still love it here,” Randall said. “We were here for her and everyone from the field crews to the supervisors to the manager wanted to make Exeter District Ambulance better.”
The experience with Teamsters has spurned Randall, Wilson and other paramedics and EMTs to drop out of the union and instead form their own employees association. Legally, there is little to no difference between unions and associations except that unions can legally go on strike, according to some legal experts. But for first responders, collective bargaining contracts typically include “no strike” clauses to protect public safety.
Randall contends the effort to switch to an association is less about pay increases and more about taking care of their own. She said the dues collected by an employee-founded association could be used to give back to the community, create a relief fund for injured employees or to buy food or snacks for crews to have at the station or while in the ambulance at posting positions throughout the county.
“Ever since I’ve gotten here, we’ve had issues with the union and the board and it’s been hostile,” Wilson said. “I just want to come to work and do my job. Both sides are making it harder for us to do what we need to do.”