Update: After publication, Meghan Bangs sent a comment in response to a request from The Ithaca Voice. She said the unionization effort came as a surprise to Bangs leadership, but that they are dedicated to both patient safety and the well-being of Bangs employees.

“While it is yet to be seen whether this unionization effort is in the best interest of our business and our employees, we certainly respect and appreciate our employees’ voices and desire to be heard. Accordingly, we feel it is important to provide all our employees with the opportunity to have their wishes expressed via a secret-ballot election held by the National Labor Relations Board, during which each employee will be free to vote for or against the union in private and without others knowing how they voted.  Bangs Ambulance has always appreciated and faithfully stood by our employees since our formation, and we will continue to do.”

Original story:

ITHACA, N.Y.—Emergency medical services (EMS) workers at longtime Ithaca emergency response staple Bangs Ambulance have started the unionization process, the group announced Tuesday afternoon, under the banner of Bangs Ambulance Workers United.

The announcement was made in joint press releases from the workers themselves and the Civil Service Employees Association, which is helping the workers organize. Bangs, a family-owned and operated company founded in 1945, is the only ambulance service based in Ithaca and responds to the most calls in Tompkins County.

Generally speaking, the workers are fearful that the area’s current medical response system is stretched to its limit and between the COVID-19 pandemic, a jump in overall medical response calls in part fueled by overdose calls (potentially related to the proliferation of fentanyl), increasing responsibilities like mental health responses and experienced workers leaving the field in favor of more feasible careers, they feel that unionization is necessary to help address the problems.

“We are organizing to secure viable pay, reasonable health care, and a transparent workplace, as well as to secure the staffing, equipment, and updated protocols necessary for the operation of an effective emergency medical response system,” according to the press release. “This is vital for the good of the workers, the good of the company, and the good of the community. We are unionizing so the EMTs and paramedics of Bangs Ambulance will have a collective voice in the company; a voice that unionization will provide.”

Workers said they approached Bangs leadership on Oct. 3 and informed them of their intention to unionize, additionally extending the opportunity for leadership to recognize the union voluntarily. That has not yet occurred.

CSEA organizer Adam Pelletier, who is working with Bangs Ambulance Workers United, said the workers had delivered a petition to the National Labor Relations Board on Oct. 4, asking for a sanctioned union election. The workers would be willing to withdraw that petition if Bangs decides to voluntarily recognize the union, he said.

Reached by phone, a Bangs worker referred The Ithaca Voice to owner Timothy Bangs’ email, but requests for comment were not answered in time for publication.

Several EMS workers are quoted in the CSEA press release, airing their concerns with Bangs but reiterating their dedication to the work they do. But they also make clear that they believe improvement is necessary and feasible, particularly in the form of more resources to keep skilled workers in the positions instead of losing them to other healthcare providers, and generally a more respected and recognized seat at the table with their employers.

“I am organizing so that we can provide better care and service to the public,” said Robert Royer, who’s been a paramedic around the country for 15 years. “A piece of solving that problem is to build a better retention system within our ranks.”

“I am organizing because EMS workers should not have to sacrifice our physical, mental, and emotional well-being to serve our community,” added Hayden Frank, a fifth-year paramedic.

Others expressed concern over worker burnout, patient safety and a need for Bangs leadership to be more willing to adapt to new practices, all of which can be interconnected. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly took a toll on the workers, when they were on the very front lines of the early pandemic response when confusion and fear were constant.

There would be about 50 workers total in the union at this point, combining EMTs, paramedics and emergency dispatchers.

Local EMS workers have been a popular topic recently, with plenty of conversation about the strain on workers. Some have blamed that strain on the Reimagining Public Safety process, such as Alderperson Jeffrey Barken who cited Meghan Bangs herself, though that conclusion is arguable. Bangs worker John Schwartz, as well as other Bangs emergency service workers, have insisted they want to keep the conversation about their operational issues and reasons for unionizing completely separate from the conversation about Reimagining Public Safety.

“We represent a strong majority of EMTs and Paramedics at Bangs, and are confident in our mission,” concludes the workers’ statement. “We stand united as workers, and united with the people of Ithaca and Tompkins County. We look forward to working with Bangs Ambulance to provide the best possible care to the community.”

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief of The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.org.