HUNTINGTON — Cabell County commissioners will vote on a resolution Thursday denying a demand from county emergency service employees to be formally recognized as a union.
EMS workers said forming a union is necessary to protect themselves from potentially dangerous working conditions, which include ambulance trips to hospitals out of state with little to no sleep.
However, the commission’s proposed resolution says state law does not grant public employees the right to collectively bargain and employees should instead ask state lawmakers to pass that legislation.
During an Oct. 24 commission meeting, representatives from the United Mine Workers of America demanded the commission recognize the UMW as the union representing Cabell County Ambulance Service employees. More than 100 EMS employees expressed interest in seeking union representation and they are prepared to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, representatives said.
As the agency overseeing the Cabell County Ambulance Service, the County Commission would need to formally recognize the union before any such negotiations could begin.
UMW representatives came back to the commission Dec. 12 and demanded an immediate vote, but commissioners could not take action because the item had not been placed on the agenda prior to the meeting.
Several county paramedics spoke to reporters following the meeting, saying they fear for their safety and the safety of the public. They have several concerns, including a lack of paramedics to staff necessary ambulances in certain parts of the county. Within the past three years, paramedics have fled the ambulance service because of exhaustion, they said.
Paramedics are frequently being called to transport patients to hospitals over long distances, including to Cleveland, Ohio, and to Durham, North Carolina.
“They’ll wait to like midnight and send us to Cleveland,” said paramedic Robbie Carpenter. “We work 24-hour shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. So if at midnight you send me to Cleveland, I’m not getting back until at least the end of my shift. So I’ve technically been up for 24 hours at a time, which is dangerous because we are driving a large ambulance being sleep deprived.”
The paramedics said they are not seeking more money, only more precautions to prevent accidents and burnout. If they had more paramedics on staff, they could distribute the call volume and be able to sleep partly at the ambulance station until needed.
The commission’s proposed resolution says state lawmakers have not enacted legislation “establishing the right of county employees to bargain collectively, to have mediation and binding arbitration, and to strike.”
The resolution cites two West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decisions, including one case between the city of Fairmont and the AFL-CIO. That ruling said public employees have some rights under the First Amendment to organize and petition, but a public employer is not required to recognize or bargain in the absence of state law.
The court held in a separate ruling that, without state legislation, common law of both federal and state courts does not grant public employees the right to strike. All county employees are regulated by state law, including EMS employees, but that law contains no provisions regarding collective bargaining or striking, according to the resolution.
The proposed resolution also cites state code saying county commissions shall provide emergency ambulance services to all residents within their county, but the commissions are not required to provide services exceeding their available funds.
State law also allows EMS employees to come to the County Commission or the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services with any safety concerns, the resolution states.
If approved, the resolution will deny the demand for union recognition without prejudice, meaning employees could make the same demand in the future. It will be denied without prejudice “to the right of the UMWA and Cabell County Emergency Service employees to request the West Virginia Legislature to adopt a statutory framework for collective bargaining, mediation, binding arbitration and striking by county emergency medical service employees.”
The Cabell County Commission meeting will be at 10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 9, inside the Cabell County Courthouse Commission Chambers.
Cabell County EMS Director Gordon Merry did not want to comment Wednesday and said it would be more appropriate for him to speak following Thursday’s meeting. A request for comment from UMW Communications Director Phil Smith was not returned by press time Wednesday.