Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The owner used to be just a door knock away. Gift cards were handed out for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the work atmosphere had the feel of family.
Basically, all the hallmarks of a mom-and-pop business.
But things changed at MedicWest, one of the two ambulance companies that serve the Las Vegas area, when national giant Emergency Medical Services Corp. bought the local company in summer 2007. And now there seem to be some growing pains in adjusting to the new way of business.
Among them, a few fitful attempts at organizing.
Of more than 250 MedicWest employees, more than 130 signed cards for a union election next month, seeking representation with the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics. But the organizers called the campaign off Sunday night.
Support for the union started dissipating a few weeks ago when a new operations manager was brought in — someone who seemed to fit the times of old.
“He should be afforded the opportunity (to make changes) in the spirit of fairness,” said Scott Diel, a paramedic involved in the union organizing. “We’re willing to suspend the union campaign as an offer of good will.”
It’s not an unfamiliar situation.
When MedicWest was sold last year, some paramedics started an organization drive with another union. John Wilson, one of the former owners, appealed to the employees to give the new ownership a year. They agreed, and the union drive failed.
As time went on, there was growing dissatisfaction with the new management.
To hear some tell it, MedicWest was once the preferred place to work over American Medical Response, which is the other company in town and is also owned by EMS Corp.
That reputation is what brought paramedic Ryan Maffia to the company. On vacation in Las Vegas four years ago, he started chatting up local paramedics, telling them he was thinking about relocating. One AMR paramedic told him if he had it to do over again he would chose MedicWest — a story Maffia heard over and over. Then he ran into some MedicWest paramedics and they couldn’t stop talking about how great the company was.
“It’s very sad to see that change. It’s not the same company anymore,” Maffia said. “It’s not a terrible place to work. It’s decent. But it used to be amazing.”
Oftentimes when a small-business culture is replaced with that of a corporate behemoth, unionism is looked to as a way to recapture a sense of employee empowerment, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Before the sale, paramedics said they felt they were heard. Although Wilson still has an office at MedicWest, he isn’t there as often and the buck no longer stops with him. The final say is with headquarters in Colorado.
Some said they were looking to unionize to get a stronger voice with management, and “have a little more say of what goes on in day-to-day operations,” Maffia said. “I think the biggest thing we all complain about is they say nothing has changed and then everything has changed.”
Among them: Overtime has been eliminated and part-timers are finding it more difficult to pull as many hours. Some even grumbled about how paperwork forms had changed.
Paramedics started wondering: “What’s going to happen today when I get to work?” according to Diel.
Wilson, who is now general manager of MedicWest and AMR, said he believes his employees are best served working directly with management instead of having a middle man, and he thinks it was only a few pro-union people who were stirring things up.
The old operations manager, though, has gone to AMR. And his replacement, Mark Calabrese, has been holding meetings with the staff to see what the concerns are.
The biggest gripe he heard: Employees missed the face-to-face communication they used to have with management (they weren’t too fond of mass memos as means of keeping employees informed).
Calabrese has been with the company since its inception, so “I relate to exactly what they’re talking about it,” he said.
There are still complaints about staffing policies, holiday pay and the state of some of the ambulances, but for now the union campaign is put on hold for six months.