Alstar Workers Seek Pay Increase

Alstar EMS workers are tentatively scheduled to take part in an informational picket in early May outside Alstar's training center on East Third Street in Jamestown. Employees hope to receive an increase in pay during a time when contract negotiations have ceased. P-J photo by Jordan W. Patterson

Employees of Alstar EMS, the largest provider of emergency services in Chautauqua County, are hoping to receive an increase in pay as contract talks with the company have stalled.

In an effort to get their points across, workers are tentatively scheduled to take part in an informational picket in early May outside Alstar’s training center on East Third Street in Jamestown.

Joe Snyder, SEIU Local 200United chairman and executive board member, told The Post-Journal that Alstar –under the ownership of UPMC — has “refused to negotiate a competitive livable wage and is hurting Chautauqua County’s emergency medical services.” He said the union and Alstar last talked on March 6, with four planned negotiating sessions canceled by UPMC.

A paramedic with Alstar since December 2002, Snyder said a federal mediator has been brought in, though he noted that “we’ve gotten to a point where we’re very far apart. People are leaving and it’s causing concerns. The wages aren’t where they need to be.”

Snyder pointed out that in 2014, the starting wage for an emergency medical technician (EMT) at Alstar was 31 percent over the state’s minimum wage, while starting pay for a paramedic was 70 percent over minimum wage. Five years later, he said EMTs now earn 4 percent above minimum wage while paramedics earn 37 percent over.

“Of veteran providers, just under three-quarters of EMTs do not make 10 percent over minimum wage while two-thirds of paramedics make less than 50 percent,” Snyder said. “This trend cannot continue.”

Employees are also concerned with current staffing levels, especially in Jamestown where the bulk of calls are handled. Snyder said as recently as 2014, Alstar kept six paramedics and six EMTs on duty with more on “peak times.”

“As employees left to earn a livable wage the staffing levels slowly eroded,” Snyder said. “Now Alstar will often only have one or two paramedics on duty, and for hours at a time be completely unavailable to serve the community.”

Snyder further pointed to the fact that Alstar is the only agency that provides transportation of patients from one hospital or facility to another. However, due to a lack of available crews, many facilities have had to bring in other agencies for these transportations.

“This causes prolonged delays in definitive care for these patients, potentially affecting their long-term prognosis and survivability,” Snyder said.

In Jamestown, the city fire department is forced to transport patients within the city using its ambulance when Alstar is not available. When this happens, Snyder said, the fire department bills Alstar, not just to make money on the service provided but to “encourage Alstar to stay in service,” Snyder said.

Dave Thomas, WCA Services Corp. executive director, went before the Chautauqua County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee to discuss the critical lack of EMTs and paramedics to work locally.

He said in 2018, Alstar received 20,000 requests for service but could only answer 16,000 of them because of low staffing levels.

Thomas said Alstar lost several employees when the county started its new emergency medical services program and fly-car system. When the program began, he said he lost four of his most experienced medics.

“We are in a crisis for EMS,” Thomas told the committee in February.

Snyder countered by saying the county was forced to start its EMS program because Alstar has been unable to staff enough ambulances.

“While it is true that former employees now work for the county, many others have gone to EmergyCare in Erie, AMR in Buffalo, Gowanda Ambulance, Randolph Regional EMS, Cattaraugus Fire Department, and Mercy EMS in Springville and Batavia,” said Snyder, noting that most agencies pay $3 more an hour an average.

“All my coworkers want to do this job, they love this job,” Snyder said, “but everybody needs a livable wage.”

The current contract for workers — which took effect Jan. 1, 2017, and ends Dec. 31, 2019 — includes a no strike clause. Snyder said he hopes the informational picket can be used to “educate the community” on the situation.