PMT Ambulance Company Gets Smacked Down by a National Labor Relations Board Judge and We Mean Smacked
It isn't every day that an administrative law judge issues a decision so juicy that it's read all the way to the end — much less pored over with highlighters, schadenfreude, and the occasional "Oh, no he di'int!"
But Judge William G. Kocol's recent decision in a National Labor Board Relations Board case pitting a Tempe-based ambulance company against its union is just such a document.
And the 29-page decision, issued last month, isn't just filled with fascinating detail: It could also mean big trouble for Professional Medical Transport, better known as PMT.
Not only did Judge Kocol find that PMT repeatedly engaged in unfair labor practices, he ordered the company to make major changes to its operations. Among the proscribed remedies: back pay for union members deprived of overtime, compensation for employees affected by a change in healthcare plans, and an order to cease and desist from nearly a dozen "unfair labor" practices, including putting surveillance cameras in employees' living quarters.
And, yes, cameras are among the highlighter-worthy details. PMT protested that it never actually turned on the cameras — but, really, talk about intimidation!
But if the surveillance cams have people talking, it's Judge Kocol's evisceration of PMT's president, Bob Ramsey, that's really generating buzz.
The lawyer prosecuting the case for the National Labor Relations Board had protested to Judge Kocol that Ramsey's testimony was "confused and rambling."
Wrote Judge Kocol, "I agree. I find Ramsey's testimony to be wholly incredible. He appeared to be fabricating it as he testified." Damn!
There's more. The union had claimed that PMT unilaterally took away shifts from employees represented by the union (a.k.a. full-timers) and gave them to moonlighting firefighters (a.k.a. part-timers).
PMT managers, like Ramsey, disputed that in court testimony. So did the company's director of human resources and director of staffing. Even though a bunch of firefighters were hired just as PMT began experiencing labor trouble, both directors testified that they didn't even remember the firefighters coming on board, much less know what impact that might have on full-time workers.
Here's what Judge Kocol had to say about that: "I find the testimony of [the two PMT managers] so incredible that I am reluctant to credit anything they said without credible corroboration."
I called PMT to see how it'd explain all this away.
But apparently even this company knows better than to argue with a judge — much less a legal decision this pointed.
PMT's only comment was to note that the company has until December 7 to file an appeal.
As I reported in August, Tempe-based PMT has enjoyed major growth in the past four years — in part because of its strong relations with the union that represents municipal firefighters.
In 2005, PMT's owner, Ramsey, formed a partnership with Pat Cantelme, and the company began to challenge the area's biggest ambulance company, Southwest Ambulance. PMT now has contracts with Scottsdale, Tempe, and half of Chandler.
Cantelme's union ties were part of that success. For 20 years, he'd been president of the powerful Local 493 union, which represents firefighters from Tempe to Peoria. His popularity with firefighters was important, politically: It's cities that contract with ambulance companies for service, but it's firefighters whom city leaders listen to when figuring out which ambulance company to choose.
Under Cantelme's management, PMT further sweetened the pot with firefighters by implementing a business model that included part-time ambulance jobs for them.
But as hungry as local firefighters may be for cash, they're going to have a hard time justifying employment at PMT in light of Judge Kocol's ruling. Not only does Kocol point out the aggressive techniques PMT used to keep its fledgling union down, he clearly shows how the company used part-time help from firefighters to do it.
When the union started raising hell, in fact, PMT fought back by cutting overtime for union members — shifting much of the work over to firefighters.
So much for the union brotherhood . . .
More than anyone else, the judge's ruling is a major victory for Joshua Barkley. A former firefighter in Apache Junction, Barkley formed a completely independent union, the Independent Certified Emergency Professionals of Arizona, with PMT's full blessing. It was only when he proved serious about fighting for his members that relations with PMT management turned ugly.
As Judge Kocol found, PMT was soon employing just about every dirty trick it could to stop Barkley. It took away his BlackBerry. It attempted to keep an employee roster out of his hands. It changed healthcare benefits without consulting the union, refused to negotiate with union leadership, and put up those security cams to keep everyone a little paranoid about union activity. It threatened to remove at least one employee from active duty because of his union activity.
Last summer, PMT even sued Barkley for defamation.
Through it all, Barkley fought, without the support of a national organization, a lawyer, or even a dues-paying membership. (PMT, naturally, refused to let Barkley collect money via direct deposit.)
The long fight surely makes this month's ruling even more satisfying.
Of course, any time a guy gets sued for defamation, it tends to shut him up, and Barkley proved no exception. He wanted to limit his remarks to a prepared statement.
"Justice has finally come to the emergency workers of PMT who so patiently waited for it," he wrote. Short and sweet.
But Barkley had one thing to add. He told me about a 26-year-old ambulance worker named Chris Riddle, who needed surgery after suffering cardiac arrest.
If that had happened to most full-time employees, they could've rested assured that their employer's insurance company would foot their bills. Not Riddle. Because of PMT's unilateral changes to the union's health plan, Barkley says, Riddle is now on the hook for 50 percent of his emergency room bill — and much of his other medical bills, too.
As I read it, Judge Kocol's ruling will force PMT to make restitution. But the way things work, insurance-wise, Chris Riddle could still end up in desperate financial straits.
If anyone's interested in helping an ambulance worker in need, give me a call. I'll get you information about donating.
Ultimately, after hearing Riddle's story, I can't help thinking about how it's one thing to read Judge Kocol's ruling and delight in the juicy details. It's quite another to realize how the company's actions affected its employees.
At that point, you don't feel gleeful. You just feel happy to know that, finally, things at PMT are going to change.
One final note about PMT.
Two weeks ago, before I'd even heard of Judge Kocol's ruling, I got a copy of a request that PMT filed with the Arizona Department of Health Services. The request, quietly submitted in August, asked the state for a whopping rate increase.
Currently, the state allows ambulance companies in the Valley to charge $632 for basic services and a bit more for advanced ones. If PMT's request were granted, it would raise the rate to $878 per pickup — a 38 percent increase.
Such a request would be unpopular at any time. But it's even worse in light of the latest front in the Valley's ambulance war. PMT is suing a number of municipalities after being shut out of a request for proposals in the far East Valley. Not a great time to be pushing for a 38 percent rate hike.
I'm apparently not the only person who realizes that. When I phoned PMT's PR representative, Jason Rose, last Tuesday, he told me he knew nothing about the requested increase and would have to get back to me.
Then I didn't hear anything for nearly a full day — which is not like Jason Rose.
When I finally heard back, it was an e-mail from Rose with a letter attached. PMT had withdrawn its request the Friday before, Rose wrote.
As it turns out, PMT didn't get around to writing the letter withdrawing its request until an hour or so after my call to Rose. And so that letter — despite being dated Friday, November 13 — wasn't actually hand-delivered to the state until Wednesday, November 18.
In other words, the request was still very much alive until I caught wind of it.
Now, Rose tells me that's just a fluke: The company had been planning to withdraw for weeks. It's only when I called that they remembered to make the withdrawal official. Or so Rose claims.
I guess it doesn't matter. For whatever reason, the request is off the table. Arizonans won't get socked with a giant rate increase.
And if they want to say they were planning all along to withdraw, well, that's just fine by me. It's Thanksgiving. I'm feeling magnanimous.
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