NEWMAN - The board which oversees West Side Community Ambulance recently ratified a new labor agreement with ambulance crews, who have been working nearly three years without a current contract in place.

Ambulance board President Dennis Brazil and union representative Fernie Mirelez said the new contract significantly reduces the amount of paid-time-off (PTO) hours which employees can accumulate in return for higher wages.

The cumulative impact of both measures is roughly a 12.5 percent compensation increase, they said.

“There was some give and take,” said Mirelez, a staff representative for the United Steelworkers Union (USW). West Side crews are part of the Turlock Emergency Medical Services Association, Local 12-911, of the USW.

The PTO policy previously in place, Brazil said, was three times the industry standard - creating a burden on the district’s budget and leading to staffing challenges as employees took time off to use their accrued hours.

Under the contract, current full-time employees will see a 25 percent reduction in the number of PTO hours they can accumulate annually. A current full-time employee with fewer than five years of service will be able to accrue 324 hours of PTO annually, down from 432 hours under the prior contract.

After a dozen years of service, full-time employees will be able to accumulate 539 hours of PTO annually.

New hires will start at a maximum of 263 PTO hours annually and will cap out at 437 hours after 12 years.

“The negotiating team strongly opposed a two-tier compensation package, however we understood that it was the only way to bridge the gap,” Mirelez commented. “New hires will be making substantially more than full-timers had made previously. We thought it was the only real solution to a compromise.”

A starting full-time paramedic will earn $17.49 hourly under the new contract (for a 60-hour week), compared to $15 under the prior contract, by way of example, while a part-time EMT will earn $16.01 hourly, up from a starting wage of $13.13 under the old contract.

Brazil said the contract builds in three annual wage increases of up to 3 percent starting July 1, 2021, plus an automatic contract renewal of an additional two years in the absence of major changes.

Brazil said the board closely double-checked the new contract with the district’s financial adviser to assure that the agreement was fiscally feasible.

The new structure, he said, will push West Side’s compensation for part-timers slightly higher than neighboring providers and bring its full-time employees into line with those providers.

“We were definitely behind the curve on wages,” Brazil told Mattos Newspapers.

In addition to approving the contract, which had previously been ratified by union membership, the board also finalized a program which offers a $5,000 bonus to newly-hired, full-time paramedics, Brazil said.

Mirelez and Brazil each said they believe the new labor agreement serves the interest of both the West Side Community Healthcare District, which operates the community ambulance, and its employees.

“I think the board, the staff and the union were all very glad to get this finally behind us so we can focus on the goals ahead,” Brazil concluded.

The contract was ratified 3-0 by the board at a special meeting held March 17.