A for-profit ambulance company is the sole donor to California Prop. 11 — which could save it scores of millions of dollars

In a ploy that could save the company millions of dollars and potentially protect it from ongoing lawsuits, a private ambulance outfit has poured $21,900,786 to date into the statewide campaign to pass Proposition 11, a measure on the November ballot that regulates lunch and rest breaks for people who work in ambulances.

Per the most recent campaign documents filed on Sept. 27, no other donors have given to the Yes on 11 campaign.

Ambulance workers say the proposition would change nothing about the way their breaks currently work, their training, or the mental health services they receive.

Instead, they say, the proposition is aimed at shielding the Colorado-based American Medical Response Company, known as AMR, from more than $100 million of potential liability in pending and future lawsuits and $100 million in increased costs if AMR has to add employees to cover drivers during their lunch breaks. Even the hefty amount the company has thus far spent on pushing Proposition 11 is dwarfed by what the company would otherwise be on the hook for.

“That’s a four-to-one return on investment,” explains Jason Brollini, an AMR paramedic for 25 years and the executive director of United EMS Workers, a union that represents AMR workers in San Francisco and elsewhere.

The California Labor Federation opposes Prop. 11, but its campaign pales in comparison to AMR’s spending. A No on Prop. 11 Facebook page funded by the labor union AFSCME has 191 likes and four posts.

An official No on 11 committee does not exist. And unions failed to submit opposition arguments to the California Official Voter Guide in time, so the proposition appears unopposed.  

On its surface, Proposition 11 would allow private ambulance companies to continue their current practice of keeping workers “on duty” during paid lunch and rest breaks. That means workers listen to their radios for 911 calls and respond if necessary.

Marie Brichetto, a spokesperson for the Yes on 11 campaign, would only say, “Prop. 11 is going to ensure that when a patient calls 911, an ambulance is going to be able to respond.”  

But that is already true today. AMR workers, however, say the company’s real M.O. is to indemnify itself itself from pending lawsuits that aim to change the status quo on breaks — and, if successful, would force AMR to pay damages and penalties to employees. “It’s intellectually dishonest,” said Brollini.

“Read the fine print,” said Lee Almeida, who has worked in emergency medical services for 26 years and is president of the Turlock EMS Association. “There’s an ulterior motive.”

The California legislative analyst’s report generally agrees.  

Under Prop. 11, the report concluded, “ambulance companies would avoid” the costs of providing off-duty meal and rest breaks required by state law — costs that would likely be passed on to the counties they serve.

The legislative analyst estimated that burden to counties as potentially reaching $100 million a year. The report also notes that the measure “seeks to limit costs that ambulance companies might face as a result of active lawsuits regarding meal and rest break violations.”

The ballot initiative as a solution to lawsuits

Problems began to arise for AMR when the California State Supreme Court ruled in December 2016 that private security guards must have breaks during which they are relieved of all duties. If the ruling in Augustus v. ABM is applied to private emergency medical service workers, it would mean AMR may have to increase staffing to cover its workers’ breaks. This could cost the company millions of dollars statewide, on top of the millions in liability for the pending suits.

From the point of view of several workers, AMR added language to the proposition to appeal to voters, by requiring employers to “provide training regarding certain emergency incidents, violence prevention, and mental health and wellness” for ambulance workers.

But Brollini and Almeida both say the workers already receive this training. Brollini adds that the mental health counselors AMR offers do a good job, but are not equipped to help them with the traumatic stress they deal with and its aftermath.

AMR’s campaign in favor of the proposition has argued that if it does not pass, public safety would be put at risk.

AMR workers, however, worry that voters simply trying to do the right thing could be fooled. “It’s disappointing to me that AMR would hide behind key phrases that prey on the public’s fear,” said Jocelyn Paulson, who has been a paramedic with AMR in Santa Clara County for 17 years.

AMR has also distinguished itself by becoming the third-largest single donor to any state initiative campaign this year, ranking behind two other medical groups opposing Proposition 8, which would regulate clinic charges for outpatients kidney dialysis.

The backstory

Both AMR and its workers generally agree that the nature of being a paramedic requires workers to be on duty during their breaks, and ready to respond to emergencies. “None of my guys find it acceptable to say, ‘nope, I’m not responding to that 911 call,’” said Brollini.

To rectify this reality with the 2016 State Supreme Court ruling in Augustus v. ABM, private EMS workers and elected officials tried to agree on legislation.

In early 2017, Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), a former EMS worker, introduced AB 263, which would have required that a worker’s break only be interrupted for emergencies that required an ambulance to activate its lights and sirens. For such interruptions, the employer would have to compensate the worker an extra hour of pay.

While the legislation was being discussed, a lawsuit called Bartoni v. AMR, which had sought but been denied class-action status over break violations committed by AMR, was revived because of the State Supreme Court’s ruling in Augustus.

Bartoni, the court ruled, could continue to pursue class-action status, which it gained in early 2018.

The stakes for AMR are huge: The lawsuit could cost them north of $100 million — on top of increased costs in perpetuity. Rodriguez shelved his legislation to let the court cases play out. “Should the courts miss the mark, I will resume AB 263 next year,” the legislator said in a September 2017 statement. “The entire EMS community will be watching this issue closely.”    

Within a month of Rodriguez withdrawing his compromise measure, an AMR representative named Sean Henschel had started the process for a ballot initiative. Collecting signatures to qualify Prop. 11 for the ballot cost AMR about $3 million, according to campaign finance documents.

“This is a way to try to limit their liability,” said Brollini, a proponent of the legislative solution. Prop. 11 “is not going to change what we have done for the last 25 years. It’s not going to change the status quo.”  But, he affirms, it will save AMR millions.

Disclosure: From 2013 to 2014, Eric Murphy was employed by AFSCME International. United EMS Workers is a subdivision of that union.