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October 20, 2014

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Labor and City Hall:

From the sidelines, a bid to stop a strike

Private ambulance service, union at odds over expired contract

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American Medical Response paramedics’ contract with the Service Employees International Union has expired, and a strike is possible.

Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman urged both sides in a looming paramedic strike last week to resolve their differences and negotiate a contract for the sake of the community.

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“The two sides need to talk,” Goodman said of the paramedics and the company they work for, American Medical Response.

“We asked them to resolve this because it may jeopardize the health and safety of our residents,” Reid said at a news conference.

But about all that city and county officials can do is express their concern. They have no direct role in helping avert a strike.

The reason: By contracting with a private company to transport injured or sick people to the hospital, government has no authority to deal directly with the paramedics. Negotiations are strictly between the union and the private company, so government officials are relegated to the sidelines for the most part, allowed to do no more than encourage the parties to work it out.

The contract between AMR, which handles the majority of the Las Vegas Valley’s ambulance needs, and the Service Employees International Union has expired. Both have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, and the union has given notice that it will strike the day after Thanksgiving.

This is an unusual predicament.

Fire and police departments are precluded from striking because a loss of those vital services, no matter how temporary, is a danger to the public. Private companies, though, typically don’t have no-strike clauses in contracts with workers.

In Las Vegas, the fire department, which has about 200 paramedics on staff, is the first responder to a medical emergency but takes patients to the hospital only about 25 percent of the time. Most of that duty is handled by AMR.

Reid clearly isn’t happy with the government’s limited ability to step in. His staff is researching the AMR franchise agreement to determine whether the county can weigh in beyond persuasive words. Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic is doing the same.

Goodman declined to comment on the larger policy issue about the government being sidelined, saying only that his primary concern is the possible strike.

Without a direct role, the government’s only leverage aside from persuasion over the parties would be in the franchise agreement. It can be a powerful tool, according to Adrian Moore, vice president of the Reason Foundation, a pro-free-market think tank. If the company cannot provide adequate service, the city or county can award the contract to another company.

To save money, governments frequently turn to private companies to take over public services.

Unlike other cities that once handled all ambulance services in the public sector and only later decided to outsource, Las Vegas has long had a public-private partnership for emergency medical response. The city added paramedics to the fire department more than 30 years ago but didn’t start transporting until 1999. Until then it was handled entirely by private companies.

AMR’s local workforce wasn’t unionized when the company got the contract with the city and county, so the issue of a strike wasn’t a consideration at the time, Reid said.

Some cities have tried to avoid the issue Las Vegas is facing by inserting no-strike clauses into their franchise agreements with companies.

Whether officials try to do that here when the AMR contract expires in 2015 depends, they say, on how the current strike threat plays out.

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