HUNTINGTON — Cabell County EMS employees were given permission Thursday to hold a peaceful protest later this month over the County Commission’s refusal to recognize their demands for union representation.

Commissioners unanimously approved a permit sought by emergency medical service employees to hold a protest from 9 to 11 a.m. Feb. 27 on the courthouse lawn.

According to the permit application, EMS employees are staging the protest over the commission’s “non-recognition” of the United Mine Workers of America as their collective bargaining representative. Some of the employees have said they need to unionize to protect themselves from potentially dangerous working conditions.

Commissioners declined a request last month to recognize the union, saying the lack of state laws prevents them from doing so. There is no state law “establishing the right of county employees to bargain collectively, to have mediation and binding arbitration, and to strike,” commissioners argued.

County attorney Bill Watson told EMS employees gathered at last month’s 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 said they are not seeking more money or the ability to strike. They instead want a stronger voice in matters pertaining to their safety, fearing injuries from long hours and fewer paramedics on staff, they said.

Cabell County EMS Director Gordon Merry previously said the ambulance service has a peer-driven safety committee, which is listening to employees’ safety concerns. He said the agency is changing to 12-hour shifts instead of 24-hour shifts for out-of-state ambulance transports and it is working to hire new paramedics.

Also during Thursday’s meeting, commissioners approved hiring two new, full-time deputies for the Cabell County Sheriff’s Office. Sean Beckett and Colin Cooper are already certified officers and will not be required to attend the West Virginia Police Academy, Sheriff Chuck Zerkle said.

“We were very fortunate, for the first time, that we had certified people apply that came to the top,” Zerkle said. “It will probably save the county about $30,000 per employee by not sending them to academy and training. They are local guys so it will be a win-win.”

Zerkle said he will hold a swearing-in ceremony for the new deputies at a future date. At that time, he will also present Purple Heart medals to two deputies who were injured in an Oct. 30 shooting in Ona.

Cpl. Jim Johnston andDeputy Jared Cremeans have since recovered after being fired upon by a suspect as they attempted to serve a warrant at the suspect’s house. The suspect, Michael Lane Pinkerman II, was killed when deputies returned fire.

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

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