As an Emergency Medical Technician, John Moore knows the toll the job can take. After he witnessed and then treated a patient shot by police, he began seeking counseling. “I still get jumpy when I hear something that sounds like a gunshot,” he says.
But as an EMT in Seattle, Moore also knows the limits of his budget. With a high-deductible insurance plan, he pays for most of his healthcare out of pocket. Making just over $15 an hour, those costs can be hard to cover. There’s not always money, he says, for “luxuries like healthcare.”
Moore and other EMTs are calling on the City of Seattle to require their employer, the private company American Medical Response, to increase their pay. Council Member Kshama Sawant has taken up their cause, introducing a resolution to the city council Monday. The council voted 6-2 Monday to delay voting on the resolution until next week.
Moore says he knows coworkers who have sold plasma or taken side jobs driving for Uber and Lyft or who commute from far outside Seattle to make ends meet.
“Our greatest strength is compassion and they exploit that compassion,” Moore says.
Moore, who has worked at AMR for a year, says he makes between $15 and $16 an hour. Matt Drewry, another EMT who has worked at AMR for three and a half years, told the city council Monday he makes $15.29 an hour. Last week, Drewry said, he worked 86 hours.
The City of Seattle contracts with AMR for ambulance service inside the city. The Seattle Fire Department is the first to respond to 911 calls and transport people who need advanced life support. AMR is the primary company transporting anyone who needs basic life support. AMR pays the city to be the primary provider and makes its money from patients and insurance companies. Several other private companies operate in nearby cities, sometimes transporting people into Seattle.
The city is currently in the process of renewing its contract with AMR through a request for proposals process. That contract will set the terms under which AMR operates in the city.
Sawant wants the city to require AMR to pay the EMTs at least $25 an hour as a condition of the contract. Sawant's resolution calls on two city departments to require AMR to pay its workers at least $25 and provide benefits “comparable to” firefighters and other publicly employed emergency workers.
Separately, AMR and the Teamsters union representing the EMTs are negotiating the EMTs’ next collective bargaining agreement, which will include pay.
“The fact that the workers are unionized does not absolve the city council as the highest legislative body in doing its duty and making sure that the rhetoric about Seattle’s workers and their rights does not just remain rhetoric but is actually enforced by the city,” Sawant said Monday.
AMR’s existing contract with the city requires the company pay its EMTs an amount “substantially equivalent to the average rate of compensation” for similar workers in similar cities. Citing other AMR workers' collective bargaining agreements, Sawant's office says EMTs in cities in northern California make 28 percent more than EMTs in Seattle.
Stephanie Formas, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan, acknowledged the ongoing labor negotiations, saying in a written statement “the city hopes they are able to find a resolution to provide strong benefits and wages to its employee.” But Formas did not acknowledge the substance of Sawant’s resolution or respond to a question about whether Durkan supports a requirement that EMTs make at least $25 an hour.
AMR did not respond to a request for comment. AMR representative Mike Andrews spoke to the city council Monday, but did not directly comment on the request for $25 per hour. He told the council 70 percent of AMR’s patients are on Medicaid or Medicare and 15 percent are uninsured.
“You can imagine how that impacts our revenue and impacts the money we bring in,” he said. Andrews urged the council to “let the process [bargaining the new city contract] move forward.”
Debating the resolution Monday, some city council members said they wanted more time to fully understand the ongoing negotiations. Sawant called the delay a “political hold.”
Council Member Lorena Gonzalez, who chairs the public safety committee, said Fire Chief Harold Scoggins requested the delay because “he believes there will be implications that will incur unintended consequences.” (The fire department did not immediately respond to a request for elaboration on this. I’ll update this post if I hear back.)
The council voted 6-2 for the delay, with Sawant and Council Member Mike O’Brien voting no. Council Member Debora Juarez was absent. They’ll consider the resolution again next Monday.