Ambulance Chasteners

Did Chris have the same experience? "Absolutely the same."
"Ramsay and his mouthpiece, Roy Ryals, are in it for different reasons than their employees," says Tony, a paramedic. "We're in it to save lives, and they're in it to make dollars."

Ironically, Tony believes that things got worse for Southwest employees when they unionized five years ago. "If employees look for a union, they're collectively saying that they think they're getting a raw deal. Ramsay didn't like that, and ever since then we have paid the piper day after day."

Like his colleagues, Tony claims that he does it for love of the job. Inspiring though such altruism might be, it's hard to believe that all ambulance workers are candidates for sainthood. All of the ones I spoke to were intelligent, articulate people. If their vocation is in health care but their working conditions are so horrible, what's stopping them from undergoing further training, becoming registered nurses?

"Some do," says Tony. "But you miss the ambulances. You miss being out on the street, the emergency calls. I can't imagine wanting to do anything else but this."

Pat Cantelme, president of United Phoenix Firefighters union, dismisses Tony's claim that things have worsened since Southwest unionized. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he says. And he feels that complaints about low pay are exaggerated. "I'm not sure what they're paid specifically, but the first thing you have to take into consideration is that the hourly wage is a little bit lower than it would normally be because their employer is required to pay them time and a half after 40 hours. So a normal work week would have what they call scheduled overtime."

Joe scoffs at this. "Yeah, so we get overtime. We'd still get more money making Burrito Supremes."

Southwest has just been bought by Rural/Metro, the subject of a state investigation in 1994. As New Times reported at the time, the investigation dried up in January 1995.

Cantelme doesn't expect the sale to affect Southwest, at least in the short term. "Long term, it could have a pretty profound effect. But there's really no way to predict--will Southwest affect Rural/Metro, or will Rural/Metro affect Southwest? My guess is there will be some differences in the next three to five years, but I don't know which culture is going to affect which."

Bob Ramsay will remain in charge of Southwest. Ramsay's employees may revile him, but Cantelme has nothing but praise for him. "Ramsay puts a high premium on service delivery, and sometimes that requires people to work harder than they may feel that they should work. But I've never known him to be unfair or malicious."

Ramsay is elusive--he was permanently in a meeting when I tried to contact him. But Roy Ryals, executive director of emergency medical services at Southwest, had plenty to say. "I routinely speak to the orientation groups, and categorically I can tell you no one has ever been told that interfacility transport is more important than 911."

As to allegations that Ramsay said a patient's insurance is the most important thing, "Categorically untrue. We don't even request that our personnel get information until after they've arrived at the hospital."

Ryals has little sympathy with the complaints about low pay. "Our pay is what's required by the union contract," he says smugly. He denies that employees are forced to work unreasonably long hours. When it's suggested that they have to do it to make enough to pay their bills, he responds, "Well, I don't know what their bills are." It doesn't seem to occur to him that, on $5 an hour, any bills are a problem. But then, executive directors don't have to live on $5 an hour.

He points out that if a worker has a grievance, he or she can take it to the union. But Joe claims that Southwest rules by fear. Everyone interviewed asked that their names be changed. When I paged Joe's union rep, he called me right away, not knowing who he was calling. When I identified myself, he asked if he could call me back. He never did, and never responded to further paging.

I did have the pleasure of speaking to Jim Hayden. A former president of the United Emergency Medical Professionals of Arizona, he's now the union's business manager and is responsible for handling all employees' grievances with Southwest. This is disturbing, because Hayden the unionist is the company boy's company boy, even more pro-management than the management.

Although Hayden didn't manage to convince me that life is wonderful for the staff of Southwest Ambulance, he did reaffirm my belief in true love. Before I die, I hope to find a person who loves me as much as Jim Hayden loves Bob Ramsay.

Most of the time, Hayden's manner is that of a Mormon missionary. He talks in a soft, lecturing, condescending tone, inserting your first name in the middle of every third or fourth sentence. But, when he talks about Bob Ramsay, he sounds like a Scientologist talking about L. Ron Hubbard.

When I asked him about Ramsay supposedly saying that ambulance staff had to make insurance information a priority, you'd have thought I'd insulted his mother. "Bob Ramsay would never say something like that. Never. He is not that kind of person. He is not that kind of man. He's a very humble, religious man.

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