Seattle officials pushing for better EMT wages
City council declared EMTs deserve more money in a resolution that calls on Mayor Jenny Durkan's administration to raise EMT wages and benefits
By Daniel Beekman
SEATTLE — Emergency medical technicians employed by a city contractor help and transport sick and injured people across Seattle but earn as little as $15 per hour as they respond in ambulances to incidents that can range from car crashes and psychiatric crises to strokes.
They deserve more, the City Council declared Monday with a resolution that calls on Mayor Jenny Durkan's administration to seek better wages and benefits for the EMTs.
The resolution is a nonbinding request rather than an actual law. But the EMTs hope the action will give them leverage.
Unlike firefighters and medics, who are employed directly by Seattle, the EMTs work for American Medical Response (AMR). The Durkan administration is currently negotiating a new contract with AMR and, at the same time, the EMTs are bargaining with the company.
Teamsters Local 763 represents 430 EMTs with the company in Seattle, according to the resolution sponsored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant. The EMTs work in tandem with the fire department, usually transporting patients with less-severe issues and sometimes stepping in to help with others.
"Seattle's EMTs do vital, lifesaving work in our communities every day," Sawant said before the council voted to approve the resolution.
The city's existing contract with AMR, awarded in 2011, says the EMTs should receive compensation "equivalent to the average rate" for similar private-sector workers in similar cities. But their starting wage in Seattle is $15.54 per hour—dollars less than the starting wages for their counterparts who work for AMR in Northern California cities such as Sacramento and San Francisco, according to the resolution.
"Nobody in the movement is really asking for the moon," EMT Jake Sisley said last week, asking the council to "hold the vendor accountable" to the existing terms.
The resolution asks the Durkan administration to make sure the EMTs are paid prevailing wages and asks the administration to require that AMR provide them with health-care benefits comparable to those enjoyed by other emergency workers.
Sawant wanted the council to vote on the resolution last week, but some of her colleagues held the matter to confer with the Seattle Fire Department and make changes.
An earlier version asked the administration to require that AMR pay the EMTs at least $25 per hour. The version approved Monday instead asks for a report on various ways the city can help the EMTs, such as raising their average wage to $25 per hour.
Some EMTs in Seattle are struggling with debt, long commutes and homelessness, the resolution says. Low wages and inadequate health care benefits have contributed to high turnover, and so many local EMTs are inexperienced, the resolution also says.
"No one becomes an EMT to get rich," but they should be able to "put food on the table," EMT Robert Bandarra told the council last week, saying the job can include aiding homeless people, performing CPR and delivering babies.
Another EMT described working 46 hours of overtime in a week, and a former EMT said she quit to make more money waiting tables at a Pike Place Market restaurant.
Last week, AMR representative Mike Andrews said the company wants to "take care of the city and our workforce." But 70 percent of people transported by AMR in Seattle use Medicare or Medicaid and another 15 percent are uninsured, he said.
"You can imagine how that impacts our revenue," Andrews said.
"The city is aware labor negotiations are occurring between AMR and the Teamsters 763. The city hopes they are able to find a resolution to provide strong benefits and wages to its employees," said Stephanie Formas, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
"As the city negotiates its contract with AMR, the mayor believes in a contract that supports AMR workers while ensuring that AMR can manage costs for patients."
Besides wages and benefits, Local 763 has been raising concerns about the Seattle Police Department using AMR to transport people to jail. Durkan wrote a letter to Local 763 last week saying she and newly confirmed Police Chief Carmen Best "have agreed to discontinue" that practice for "detained suspects and arrested individuals who have no medical needs."