French helo EMS pilots demand new contract

 - September 26, 2007, 12:17 PM

Pilots flying helicopters for the French hospitals’ emergency medical services went on strike twice recently to protest low wages and long hours. In response, the operators’ trade association, SNEH, said that it has already addressed the pilots’ highest-priority grievances. Early last month the pilots expressed confidence that negotiations were nearing completion.

SNPL, the pilots’ union, said that during the second action, between September 5 and 8, “more than 30” of 36 French helicopter EMS bases went on strike. During the first strike (August 14 and 15), pilots at 30 bases went on strike.

Thierry Coiffard, a representative of the pilots’ union, disputed claims that these strikes were essentially symbolic, since pilots can be–and were–conscripted by local authorities. He told AIN that some hospitals were seeking penalties against the striking pilots. Under the contract between a hospital and a helicopter operator, the latter must guarantee availability.

Pilots have voiced dissatisfaction about many aspects of the current system. First, they point out that it often prevents a pilot from getting the full benefits of his seniority. Every three years, hospitals must issue a new tender for their EMS helicopters. Should the operator in place lose out to another, the pilots in place might opt to apply for a job at the new service provider to avoid moving. If they choose to do that, they do not transfer their seniority from the previous operator.

As a result, pilots often find their salaries stagnating. “On average, our monthly wage is in the E2,200 to E2,500 [$2,900 to $3,300] range,” Coiffard said.  These wages are an estimated 30 to 40 percent lower than those of helicopter EMS pilots in neighboring countries.

Eric Fraissinet, president of SNEH, challenged the pilots’ assertions about stagnating salaries. “Under a 2003 agreement, the updated salary scale is signed every year by both parties–employers and employees–so why are they striking against something they signed a few months ago?” he groused to AIN. He insisted the SNEH recommends its members comply fully with existing rules and agreements.

Fraissinet also asserted that employers have acceded to the pilots’ most pressing demands. First, some items in the 2003 agreement–working hours, for example–could not be enforced without the proper decree. This was corrected in an August 9 order, Fraissinet maintained.

However, that order does not document the possible sanctions for operators who do not comply. Labor inspectors will therefore be unable to take action against offending employers if the administration does not improve the order, unions argued. Before the second strike, the SNEH requested a reinforced decree with documented sanctions against excessively long hours. At press time, a more precise order was being worked out to solve the matter, said Coiffard.

The operators’ association also said the pilots continued the September strike in spite of the proposals made during a September 3 round in the negotiations.

At the meeting, the SNEH said it offered improved wages and guaranteed seniority retention. SNPL’s Coiffard said the suggested salary improvement was still too low but added negotiations were progressing after the second strike.

Last August, the French labor inspectorate released a report that exposes the source of contention between the pilots and the trade group. According to the report, there has been real progress but significant problems remain. In 2005-06 the French watchdog group for labor conditions inspected 25 of the 36 EMS helicopter bases and found that the 2003 agreement is implemented only partially.

Cash-strapped French hospitals share part of the responsibility. When offered round-the-clock availability or day availability along with a so-called night obligation, they often chose the latter, which is significantly less expensive.

According to the inspectorate, the result, in many cases, is exhausting (and sometimes illegal) duty days for the pilots.

“Noncompliance with the minimum duration for daily rest–10 hours, under the 2003 agreement–is still too frequent,” the inspectorate stated. Such a situation occurred 14 times in a single month at one operator. Rest time has even been reduced to six hours, too short to counteract fatigue and recover the appropriate alertness, the report insisted.

According to the report, weekly rest rule infringements have been corrected. Inspectors had documented some 20 occasions on which an employee had worked seven days in a row without a rest day, in violation of French labor law.

Investigators discovered another breach in work duration rules in the definition of “daytime.” The definition airmen use is based on sunrise to sunset, and employers have often used this one. But the labor inspectorate said this is not consistent with labor laws. In some instances, defining “daytime” by the movement of the sun results in a pilot rest period of fewer than 10 hours.

Further, local representatives of the national authorities can conscript pilots, a tactic that has been employed excessively, according to the report. For example, investigators have found copies of blank, pre-signed conscription orders at hospitals.
“These practices, when the rest period is cut to under eight hours, jeopardize both patients and people on the ground,” the inspectorate said.

For two operators, the bottom line was huge savings. A 24-hour helicopter EMS service requires five full-time pilots. The inspectorate found two companies at which the pilot workforce was reduced to three or even 2.56, violating the law and the 2003 agreement, while taking advantage of some loopholes in the rules.