POINT PLEASANT — Only weeks after unions representing teachers and service personnel struck a deal with the legislature concerning pay raises and an agreement to work on insurance issues, Mason County EMS workers are looking to unionize.
At Thursday’s regular Mason County Commission meeting, EMS workers approached Commissioners Tracy Doolittle, Sam Nibert and Rick Handley about agreeing to allow the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to represent them. Though EMS workers were at the meeting, speaking for them, and presenting the plan, was Brian Lacy of the UMWA.
“We ask the commission to recognize us (UMWA) as the exclusive bargaining agent for the Mason County Ambulance Service,” Lacy said.
Lacy told commissioners the UMWA had the authority of a majority of full time and part time EMS employees to be their choice for a bargaining agent. Lacy said pledge cards were signed to verify the authorization or he offered to organize a third party election of EMS employees if needed to verify the majority supported the UMWA as their agent.
Lacy represents UMWA District 17 out of Charleston, which extends into Southern West Virginia, Southern Ohio, Southern Virginia and Kentucky. Lacy said the UMWA doesn’t just represent coal miners but correctional officers in Pennsylvania, workers in the Remington Arms Plant in New York and locally, Gallia County, Ohio EMS workers. Lacy said representing Mason County EMS workers would be a first in West Virginia for the UMWA.
Commissioners said this would be a first for them as well and based upon the preliminary research they had done into EMS workers unionizing, said it could be a first for the State of West Virginia.
As previously reported, in January, commissioners accepted the resignations of all the members of the Mason County Ambulance Authority Board, of which Handley was also a member. This effectively dissolved the authority board. With the resignations accepted, commissioners then unanimously voted to take on all assets and liabilities of EMS. With the commission now in charge, as such, the UMWA approached commissioners as members of the governing body of the ambulance service to seek permission to be the bargaining agent for EMS workers.
Nibert, who is himself president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said he felt before voting to accept the UMWA as the bargaining agent, more information needed to be gathered. Nibert said he’d reached out to the state EMS director and asked if this would be legal. Nibert said the director didn’t have an answer but promised to consult with their legal counsel and get one. Commissioners also noted this situation needed to be reviewed further by Mason County Prosecuting Attorney R.F. Stein who was also at Thursday’s meeting. Commissioner Rick Handley had questions about transporting patients into other states and what unionization would mean.
However, none of the commissioners dismissed the idea of the unionization but offered instead to form a committee comprised of the three commissioners and four EMS employees to be chosen by those employees to further discuss the issue. Nibert suggested those employees consist of one driver, one medic, one office worker and one EMT. Nibert said no EMS administrators or supervisors would be on the committee.
The vote to organize the committee was unanimous.
Following the meeting, Nibert stressed again how he felt it important to get legal counsel representing the state director for EMS, as well as Stein who represents the county commission and the committee together on the same page before voting on anything.
“We have to make sure everything is legal,” Nibert said.
When asked if she was opposed to the union, Doolittle, commission president, said “I have no problem with them (EMS workers) being union.”
Lacy felt the meeting went well, adding, “I thought they (commissioners) were very receptive. We definitely had some good outreach from the community (at the meeting) and Delegate (Scott Brewer) supporting our efforts.”
Speaking in support for the EMS workers choosing the UMWA as their agent were Al Sprouse of Carpenter’s Local #429 in Charleston, Floyd Sare, as well as Brewer as Lacy noted.
“All I’m asking is that everyone approach this with an open mind, ” Brewer told commissioners at the start of Thursday’s meeting. “I’m here to lend support to the folks here, I really see no downside to it (unions), to me it brings continuity for employees, to management. I ask that you give it some consideration.”
In addition to the commissioners, also at the meeting were County Clerk Diana Cromley, County Administrator John Gerlach and Delegate Jim Buter.
The issue of funding facing Mason County EMS, is being seen across the state by other ambulance services and one the Mason County Commission has been dealing with for some time now, including attempting to pass an EMS operating levy in 2016, which ultimately failed. Those voting for the levy were 5,807, those voting against the levy were 4,170. However, the levy required 60 percent of the vote in order to pass. In addition, the cost to do business continues to rise while revenue received from insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, has decreased.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, commissioners approved appropriating funds from the county’s rainy day fund into the EMS account. After the meeting, Gerlach said the commission has provided working capital for the ambulance service to operate from so that there weren’t any layoffs as cost-cutting measures have a chance to work. That working capital was in the amount of $100,000.
Commissioners have all stressed they want EMS to stay operating in Mason County.
Following the meeting, when asked about how the commission came to take over EMS and where that process was, Nibert said,”We wanted to make sure the EMS workers were provided the opportunity to continue to work and to make sure funding was there for them.”
Nibert continued: “Six months down the road, we can give you some hard facts of where we’re at, but it’s going to take time. The first thing we need to do is determine whether we’re going to unionize that entity (EMS) or not.”
The commission next meets at 4 p.m. on Thursday.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.