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HUNTINGTON — Cabell County commissioners on Thursday declined demands to formally recognize a union sought by county emergency service employees, saying the lack of state laws prevents them from doing so.

County attorney Bill Watson told EMS employees gathered at the meeting that they should instead approach their delegates at the West Virginia Legislature for the passage of laws giving commissioners the ability to recognize them.

EMS employees are seeking to gain representation from the United Mine Workers of America, which, along with members of the coal industry, represents employees of a medical clinic in Fayette County and EMS workers in Gallia County, Ohio. County employees said they need to unionize to protect themselves from potentially dangerous working conditions, which include ambulance trips to hospitals out of state with little to no sleep.

Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution denying employees’ demands for recognition because there is no state law “establishing the right of county employees to bargain collectively, to have mediation and binding arbitration, and to strike.”

“The County Commission does not have the ability to do that, and the only way you can do it is to go to the Legislature and press upon them the need and that you want this,” Watson said. “It’s not that we the commission are trying to deprive you of anything. We just do not have the legal authority and the ability to do it. It has to be done through the passage of legislation.”

Ancil Ramey, an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, helped commissioners draft the resolution. Ramey said he was at the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in 1990 when teachers went on strike and were later sued by the Jefferson County Board of Education. The court held that teachers, as public employees, might have legitimate reasons for striking, but it was up to state lawmakers to make that determination, and not the court.

No new laws were developed as a result of that court decision to give public employees the right to organize, collectively bargain or strike, Ramey said. Giving EMS employees the ability to strike would also be dangerous, he said, because lives depend on their service.

“It’s one thing if steel workers or mine workers go on strike and a coal order or a steel order can’t be filled,” Ramey said. “But if my grandmother is dying of a heart attack or my teenage son or daughter is in a car wreck, I don’t want to hear that county EMS workers are all on strike.”

Paramedic Michael Ryan said EMS employees understand that they cannot walk off the job and they would be in favor of a contract that prevents them from doing so. Instead, employees are asking to have a voice in matters of their safety and the public’s safety, he said.

“We’re not here to be able to get the ability to strike. We know we are in a profession that people die if we strike,” Ryan said. “We’re not here for that. We are here for the people of this community and the people of this county.”

In their demand for union representation, EMS employees said they fear they may suffer injuries resulting from long hours and fewer paramedics on staff. Employees work 24-hour shifts and often have to make long ambulance transports out of state, which means they could potentially not sleep during an entire shift.

When the ambulance service had more paramedics on staff about a decade ago, they had a team of paramedics to respond to emergencies and a team of emergency medical technicians to make routine transports.

Now that employment numbers are down, paramedics and EMTs must travel together to ensure that two people are on an ambulance at all times.

EMTs drive the ambulance and paramedics attend to patients in the back. This means paramedics are frequently tied up on nonemergency transports out of state instead of being available for life-threatening calls within the county, employees said.

Cabell County EMS Director Gordon Merry said after the meeting that the ambulance service has a peer-driven safety committee, which is listening to employees’ safety concerns, and he is working to address them.

“We are slowly changing to 12-hour trucks so they are not on 24 hours,” Merry said. “We added three ambulances that come on at 7 o’clock at night and they get off at 7 in the morning. They are the ones primarily that are doing the out-of-state transports now because of the concerns that were brought to me.”

The lack of paramedics in the county is a problem nationwide, he said, which is also made worse by high turnover. The Journal of Emergency Medical Services reported that data shows far less people are going into the field than a decade ago, which has created critical gaps of coverage in certain parts of the country.

Merry said he cares about his employees and is committed to addressing their safety concerns. However, he believes county commissioners made the right decision Thursday.

“I started this job in 1974 and I started working on the road just like these people. I’ve done this 46 years. This will be my 47th year,” he said.

“I would not do anything intentionally to hurt any of them. I’ve made my livelihood here, and I’ve put everything humanly possible into the service.”

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

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