USW Helps ‘EMS Workers Bill of Rights’ Advance to California Senate

Health care workers marked a huge accomplishment last week when the California Assembly overwhelmingly passed AB 263, also referred to as the EMS Workers Bill of Rights.

Members from across District 12 began mobilizing in February to help push the bill, which formalizes workplace rights and protections for first responders, including prescribed meal breaks and rest periods, more rigorous safety standards, and greater access to mental health resources.

The USW is now gearing up for the second phase of getting the bill passed into law as it heads to the California Senate.

Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, who himself spent 32 years working as an EMT, unveiled the Bill of Rights at a press conference, just as District 12 was holding its Health Care Workers Council (HCWC) meeting. The group viewed this as a perfect opportunity to advance one of their longstanding goals.

The council lobbied at legislative offices in the state capitol and called upon locals throughout California to help.

“A group of us went in February and spoke with Mr. Rodriguez, and it was very empowering because he understood, not just in a hearsay way but because he had actually been in the field,” said Shawna Shovelski, site vice president for USW local 12-911.

“It is so great to find someone who is listening to our voices about what’s happening to us out on the streets.”

In addition to lobbying lawmakers, Shovelski said they also began to spread the word to other USW members in their local’s EMS units. “We started talking about it amongst ourselves, and we put it all over our companies’ Facebook pages to spread the word.”

Members also worked to sustain the lobbying effort, building on the momentum from the District 12 HCWC meeting. Diana Gandara, Rapid Response coordinator for USW local 7600 and a Kaiser Permanente employee, spent months spreading the union’s message lobbying in Rodriquez’s district, where she resides.

“We are fortunate to have a close relationship with Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez,” Gandara said. “Freddie uniquely understands the issues and connections between us. These EMS protections benefit all of us. We are in this together.”

District 12 Rapid Response Coordinator Catherine Houston kept district activists both in and outside the health care sector up to date on the bill’s progress. When it finally came up for a vote in the assembly, the union set up a toll free number so that members throughout California could call and express support for the bill.

“Last week was very critical for us because we needed to ensure we had the votes to get this passed out of the assembly,” said Houston. “We activated all our amazing members, asking them to please make calls so we could see AB 263 successfully advance. Now we can lay the groundwork to maximize our efforts on the senate side. Our goal is to see this signed into law by the governor this year. That will be our true victory for EMS workers.”

“Even a small number of people personally contacting their representatives via a phone call or in a district visit can make a big difference in passing a crucial bill like this,” Houston said. “Our members are their constituents, and they hold more power with their legislators than they realize.”

First responders working for private companies often work long hours under stressful conditions, and, as several recent studies have shown, this takes a considerable toll on workers’ physical and mental health. On a day-to-day level, first responders are often posted for long hours in unsafe areas, without access to food or restrooms. The stress wears on many first responders. This has made protections like those in the EMS bill all the more important.

“You have no idea what you’re walking into you when you respond to a call,” said Shovelski. “Maybe someone’s drunk and irate. Some units have even been shot at.”

The EMS bill addresses many of these concerns, but there is still more work to be done if the bill is to pass the California Senate.

Anyone living or working in California can help to pass AB 263, the EMS Workers Bill of Rights, by calling your state senator toll free at 855-572-9543. The system will automatically route you to the appropriate office based upon your zip code. You should also ask to speak to the office of the Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León to express your support for the bill. Calls should be made prior to July 21, when the Senate summer recess commences.

If the bill is successful in California, the union plans to work for similar legislation in other places. “I would love to see this bill replicated in every state,” Houston said.

“Every day first responders put their lives on the line just doing their jobs,” said District 12 Director Bob LaVenture. “Our members take great pride in their work, and it is imperative that they be safe and protected. The passage of this bill would be the first step toward securing protections for all EMS workers in California.”

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