Friday, October 28, 2005


The Following appeared on Lou Dobbs CNN show:

DOBBS: Tonight, new worker outrage on the Gulf Coast. Emergency medical workers who hail from Ohio, who risked their lives during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, say that they were rewarded by having their pay cut in half, and they want that pay back. And they're ready to take the fight all the way to Washington, D.C. Lisa Sylvester reports.



LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Joe Kunkel is a paramedic in Akron, Ohio. When Hurricane Katrina hit, he and 15 others from his union traveled to New Orleans to save lives while dodging hazards from snakes to sniper fire.

And how were they rewarded by their company? They say with a 37 percent hourly pay cut.

KUNKEL: It's pretty much derogatory from our standpoint, for the guys that are doing the job. You know, we go down for two weeks at a time on a minimum deployment, expecting, you know, to at least be paid our compensated wage for our collective bargaining agreement.

SYLVESTER: Under that agreement, (ambulance company name) pays a paramedic with five years' experience $14.17 an hour. But (ambulance company), under a 24-hour schedule, slashed wages for relief workers, offering only $8.83 an hour. A one-year paramedic made only $7.31 an hour, a little more than a fast food worker would earn.

At the same time, federal records show (ambulance company) raked in $8 million in FEMA contracts. (Ambulance company) declined to do an interview, but in a statement said: "Under the (ambulance company) pay plan, the weekly wages employees earn during their deployment were equal to or greater than their scheduled weekly wages at their home location.

DAVID HOLWAY, PRESIDENT, IAEP: If you take a look at the amount of hours these people were working, they should have received a lot more in salary, in benefits for that period of time. So the company, (ambulance company) pulled a bait and switch.

SYLVESTER: Ohio Congressman Steve LaTourette wants Congress to look at this contract and others awarded by FEMA.

REP. STEVE LATOURETTE (R), OHIO: You think the danger that we had in the Gulf Coast in general is profiteering. When you have these large contracts, it appears you can pay people whatever you want to pay, and it looks like the rest of the money goes into the profit column of the corporation.


SYLVESTER: The union accuses (the ambulance company) of violating the Federal Service Contract Act of 1965 that ensures service employees a prevailing wage, and in Louisiana for paramedics that's at least $13 an hour. According to records obtained by the union, the company was being paid by the federal government $115,000 a month, but paying only $25,000 a month in salaries -- Lou.

DOBBS: And there's no straight line budgeting for per hour employee on that contract?

SYLVESTER: No, there isn't. It's one of the things that you have to look very carefully at the hourly wage versus the weekly wage. The company says, hey, if the weekly wages were the same as what you made, but these folks were making so many more hours, and they say their hourly wage should have been higher.

DOBBS: And of course, under the waiver of the Davis-Bacon Act, prevailing wages are not even relevant here, thanks to the president's waiver.

Congress is now set to vote as early as this week on a measure that would reinstate the Davis-Bacon Act on the Gulf Coast and force employers to pay the prevailing wage. Congressman George Miller of California is leading the fight to overturn President Bush's suspension of Davis-Bacon. He joins us tonight from Washington. Can you get your measure through Congress, a Congress run by Republicans?

REP. GEORGE MILLER (D), CALIFORNIA: I think we can. I think we found a way in which we can present this to the Congress. We have strong bipartisan majority in favor of overturning what the president has done. We lost in the Education Committee last week on a party line vote. There will be another vote I believe in the Transportation Committee maybe later this week, and then on November 4th, we have a right, the parliamentarians in the Congress have told us we have a right to an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Congress, and I think at that time, the bipartisan majority that we have will speak to this, and we will overturn in the House what the president has done to undermine the wages of workers in the Gulf Coast area.

DOBBS: At the point of which the federal government is giving cost-plus contracts, no-bid contracts out to the tune of billions of dollars, what sense in the world does it make to you, Congressman Miller, that this administration would be motivated to deny prevailing wages to workers in construction of the Gulf Coast?

MILLER: Well, they just caved in to a group of right-wing ideologues that hate this law. They've hated it for the 30 years I've been in Congress. And the insult to the taxpayers and the insult to the workers was that at the same time, they were handing out no-bid contracts, which led to the abuses that you just had on the previous story, that Congressman LaTourette was calling attention to. That the contract awarded had nothing to do with the cost of labor and the benefits just flow to the bottom line of Halliburton and Shaw Industries and these others that immediately got no-bid contracts, and the workers had no protection for the wages that they would be employed at.

DOBBS: Congressman George Miller, a good friend of working men and women in this country, we thank you for being here. And as you referred to Lisa Sylvester's story, Congressman, I'm sad to tell you, you ain't seen nothing yet, as the saying goes, from Louisiana. We'll be talking to Senator Mary Landrieu about the same issue with some remarkable people who were caught up in the same issue, Davis-Bacon.

We thank you very much, Congressman Miller. We appreciate it.

MILLER: Thank you.


I first read the above on an ems mail list. There followed a number of posts expressing outrage at the company. I also learned that a union in my area who had sent people at the same time I was there – many of who volunteered to stay longer -- had filed a grievance against the company on the pay issue. I have for the most part avoided posting anything on the list in recent years because the debate quickly deteriorates into name-calling, and everyone has to get the last word. Still I was so shocked by the story that I felt I had to post about my experience. I wrote the following:

I went down in September from the (my city) division. We had a three page list of people who volunteered to go. I didn't ask what the pay rate was when I volunteered. Maybe others did. Most I talked to didn't. Before I left I was given a memo, which detailed how I would be paid. I didn't have any objections to it. It seemed reasonable to me.

I was there for eight days. While I was paid less than my normal rate, I was paid 24 hours a day despite only actually working on the road a maximum of 12 hours. Some days I worked less. I was paid about $13 an hour for the first 40 hours of the week. The remaining 128 hours were at an overtime rate of an estimated $19.50. I grossed over $3000 for a full seven day pay week. (My next pay week included a 24 hour day at the $13 rate, then my regular overtime rate of $33 and some odd change kicked in after 16 hours of regular shift work.) I didn't have to pay a dime while I was down there. I had breakfast and dinner cooked for me( it was excellent food -- steaks, fried catfish, crawfish pasta -- good fare), and was given MREs and drinks to take on the road. Many of the people who were down there volunteered to stay extra time with full knowledge of what they were being paid. Some in fact stayed because they could make more money down there than they could up here. I have no idea what (the ambulance company) was paid by FEMA -- but I can say they delivered a good product. EMS was covered in Southern Mississippi. If you were sick, you got an fairly timely ambulance, despite bridges being out, road signs missing, and mega traffic jams.

My experience was a positive one.


I wasn’t certain what type of reaction my response would provoke, but I soon found out. The main poster who objected to my post made a valid point that the people who had gone in the first two waves were given the pay policy because it hadn’t been decided upon yet. He went on to say union contracts need to followed, inferring that the pay should have been at the regular rate I’m assuming for all 24 hours for all 7 days of the week. In subsequent posts to other responses, he continued to assert his pay had been cut by 37%.

I was torn whether or not to respond. On one hand my personal feeling was that it is hard for me to complain about the wages when I made so much money, particularly in helping people who had nothing. And while I don’t like to see the company I work for badmouthed when in my view, the shots were off-target, I also do respect the need for workers to stand up to companies when they feel they are being taken advantage of, and I understand the anger many medics feel about being paid so little for the valuable work they feel they do. I believe it was this long burning anger that fueled their actions. I think it was a bad move – in a public relations game it compares to recent union protests that in a nearbye city a few years ago kept defibrillators off fire trucks because the union wanted compensation for training, and most recently ended a school after school snack program because a union protested that teachers were handing out the snacks and not union cafeteria workers. Sometimes standing on a principle makes you look pretty silly and self-centered. While I admire union people who fiercely try to hold the line( and we need such people), some fights may cost you more in the long run. I would have a hard time pleading poverty and victimization when I probably made more in a week than one of my Mississippi EMT partners(who lost everything) could make working in ten weeks at their normal rate of pay for hours of work.


I ended up writing the following, but then choosing not to post it. I feel I made my point in my initial post, which was simply – I made good money when I was there.

I was in the third wave and thus had the advantage of being informed how I would be paid just prior to leaving. I made over $3000 for a seven day pay period. In (my city), I am paid per hours worked on the ambulance. In Mississippi I was scheduled to work 72 hours during that seven day period. Day one was travel. Days 2-7, 12 hour shifts. (One day I was brought in six hours early because they needed to send the truck I was in to Texas to prepare for Hurricane Rita. They told me to take the rest of the day off, even though I had already arranged to go out with another employee whose car was in because his partner was sick. They said it was slow and they had enough cars on. Many people in fact were given regular days off.)

So here’s the math using the following pay rates -- $22 regular $33.50 OT.

72 hours at Hartford rate -- 40 hours at $22 ($880,) 32 hours at OT at $33.50 ($1072,) Total pay $1952.

Instead I made something like $3069. To have made that money in (the city) I would have had to have worked 40 hours regular time, plus 66 hours of overtime for a total of 106 hours or about seven 15 hour shifts. Additionally I was fed excellent food and drink and had my laundry done for me, and had no commuting expenses. It was a good week for my bank account.

I guess the argument is that I should have been paid my regular rate 24 hours 7 days a week (which would make my check about $5000 in that case – nice!), even though I would not be expected to work but a half of those hours (even nicer!). If people in the first two weeks were told they would be paid at that rate, then they understandably have a beef, and should be compensated.

But for those whose working and pay experience were similar to mine, I would find it somewhat disingenuous for those of us who knew what we were getting paid, to complain, “They slashed my pay by 37%,” without adding, “but they only made me work 12 hours a day and they paid me for all 24 even when I was sleeping so in the end I made more money than I would have under my regular rate.” I’ll take that deal today if (the ambulance company) wants to pay me that rate 24-7 in (the city) with OT kicking in after the first 40 of every pay period. The math says, “That’s a nice raise, not a cut.”

Now it seems there are two issues that are underlying people’s contentions here. One, paying us a different rate is a violation of the union contract, and we can’t allow union contracts to be violated. If (the ambulance company had said, okay, everyone will be paid their regular rates, but only for hours worked as stipulated in the contract, and we’ll pay for your commute, plus lodging and all food on us, the contract would not have been technically violated, but we would have been paid less money. (If we want to get technical with contracts, at least according to the (city) contract, the work would have had to have been offered to part-timers first.)

The second, and perhaps biggest concern, seems to be that (the ambulance company) made millions at our expense, and we deserve a share of the windfall. If profit sharing is in our contract I haven’t read that provision. I have no idea what (the ambulance company) made or what their costs were, nor do I have any illusions that they are charitable organization. (If the government slapped the money down on the table, I’m sure they took it. At least they did the job.) And if they did make money, then the place for us to get our share is in our contract negotiations. I am proud to be a union man and believe we should try to get all we can from the company. Maybe all those nebulous millions are why, after we voted 125-3 to threaten a strike notice, (the ambulance company) finally gave us a decent contract offer with a 14% raise over three years. Not everything we might want, but better than in the past and a hard figure in these economic times for a union like ours to wave in front of an apathetic public and say look at poor us.

We all believe we are underpaid and it makes us angry, but frankly the public doesn’t care about us – they have their own problems. And you can talk about commercial versus municipal, but most of the municipal EMS services that have been sprouting up around here in the suburban towns, don’t pay so well either.

I stopped posting to this mailing list long ago, but I felt that the CNN story of workers’ complaints did not mirror my experience, nor those of most of the people from our division I know who went down there and many of the people from across the nation who I talked and worked with who had been there from the beginning – many of who asked to stay longer. I didn’t get screwed like they were saying we were getting screwed. If the full story was told to CNN, I don’t think it would have had the shocking news value the story did.

I respect everyone’s right to have an opinion and I believe in giving (the ambulance company) hell when they deserve it (as I have done often in the past). I just think arguments are most effective when the disclosure is full. And I wouldn’t have picked our Hurricane Katrina experience (at least as I experienced it) as an example to wave in front of the public. I don’t think it helps us as a profession or as union members.


I just couldn’t click the send button. Why inflame people’s anger? “Winning” an argument really isn’t important. What’s important is that you honestly say what you feel and allow others to do the same.


I was pleased that I waited because there appeared a number of posts that changed the debate to a higher level. I quote from one:

“While not involved or from any of the effected areas. I would like to say thank you to all of those who were deployed. And no matter what the pay rate or feelings about it, I am surte that all of those deployed did so from the heart and not as a making money plan. I am also sure that each individual that went down there showed the upmost professionalism. There are plenty of individuals such as (paramedic name) that are still down there. While I know some of those who were deployed, I am proud to have served with them in the field. And for those who I don't personally know who responded and are still thinking of responding, You bring great pride to this profession by showing the true face of those in EMS.”

And another:

“thank you. the gratitude from nearly everyone i encountered while in mississippi was overwhelming. from nurses, to mds, to the cashier at the makeshift wal mart in a tent, people were amazingly strong and gracious. i had one cardiac pt whose defibrillator was firing and he didn't make a peep until he asked me where i was from (we apparently have funny accents up here), after which he got choked up and thanked me profusely. i've been quiet regarding the pay issue because i have mixed feelings about it, but i think all of us who spent time there have come back with a greater appreciation for what's important in life (beer, since fema didn't allow us to drink). while i wouldn't call them 'perks', i'm continually grateful for the opportunities that this profession makes available to me.”


I too am grateful. And I respect everyone who has stayed in this field over the years when they could have gone on to more lucrative – at least financially – pursuits.


Only two calls today -- same address -- same doctor's office -- same patient -- transported to the same hospital. Lady with a cough and clear phlegm production goes to doctor's office, says she is having trouble breathing. They give her a treatment and call us. We take her in. She gets another treatment at the hospital and is given antibiotics. She goes back to doctor's office to get a note to get out of work, starts coughing, tells doctor she feels like her throat is closing. They call us again. We take her back in. She is very stable.