You may not have heard of Proposition 11. Or, if you have, it sounds like a no-brainer, an easy “yes” to mark on your ballot on election day.
The California Official Voter Information Guide states that Prop. 11 will require “hourly employees to take work breaks for meals and rest, without being on-call, inapplicable to private-sector emergency ambulance employees.” According to the official Yes on 11 campaign, a yes vote will “protect public safety” and ensure “that EMTs and paramedics can quickly respond to provide the critical care you need.” On the surface, it sounds like a proposition that promotes the public good and improvements to the 911 response system.
But as I tell my written composition students at the University of San Francisco, the best way to determine the true intentions of a ballot measure is to follow the money. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, American Medical Response, or AMR, was the main contributor to the Californians for Emergency Preparedness and Safety committee that paid for the Yes on 11 campaign. As one of the nation’s largest ambulance providers, American Medical Response contributed $21,900,786 to this committee.
In order to understand why AMR would spend nearly $22 million to codify common sense practices — such as EMT and paramedic meal and rest breaks — it’s necessary to understand current California labor laws and AMR’s history of violating them. It’s the current industry practice that first responders are entitled to meal breaks determined by the length of their shifts. Workers may be granted those breaks while remaining on duty, but if a call comes in, they immediately end their break and respond to the call. If a break is interrupted in this way, first responders may report the interruption at the end of a shift and be compensated with another meal or rest period. In 2017, a group of first responders led by dispatcher Laura Bartoni alleged they were denied pay for these interrupted rest breaks over several issues, filing the lawsuit Laura Bartoni, et al., v. American Medical Response West.
Separate from the lawsuit against AMR, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that on-call breaks violate state labor laws in Jennifer Augustus v. ABM Security Services, a case involving private security guards and their employers, who required they keep their radios on during breaks. The court ruled in favor of the workers, stating that employers must provide breaks that are off-duty and not interruptible. In order to adhere to this ruling and make sure employees get uninterrupted, off-duty breaks, AMR would need to operate more ambulances and have more first responders on duty, increasing costs. It’s likely that this cost factors into AMR’s support and funding of the proposition.
Under Prop. 11, AMR seeks to eliminate the possibility for further lawsuits stemming from meal and rest break violations and circumvent the Augustus v. ABM Security Services ruling. A report by the California legislative analyst concluded that “ambulance companies would avoid” the costs of providing off-duty meal and rest breaks, and these costs would likely be passed on to counties. The legislative analyst estimated that this cost for counties could reach $100 million per year.
If Prop. 11 passes, moving forward, some of the legal ramifications will be determined by courts. But one very real consequence for individual first responders is that they could lose out on the opportunity to report past interrupted breaks. This could economically impact these workers whose wages don’t match the amount of work they put in to save lives. With California’s ever-increasing cost of living, the goal should be to provide our first responders with livable wages.
Perhaps more importantly, Prop. 11 creates problems for first responders across the state. First responders will most likely lose the option of clocking out and taking uninterrupted rest breaks when there are high volumes of calls. This will likely occur in population-dense locations such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area. When working a 24-hour shift, for example, a constant stream of 911 calls will mean that, by law, a paramedic may not get the chance to eat or rest even for a few minutes — this is absurd.
The irony of it all is that first responders take care of others while not being taken care of themselves. As a teacher and advocate for service-oriented workers, please join me along with the California Teachers Association, United EMS Workers, the California Labor Federation and the California Democratic Party as we stand with our emergency medical service workers. We must demand that workers have a right to rest on breaks by voting no on Prop. 11.
Maree Caput is an adjunct instructor in Rhetoric and Language at University of San Francisco