Paramedic pay ruling effects feared Overtime could force changes, chief says

March 05, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A federal court decision awarding Anne Arundel paramedics overtime pay could create new difficulties in a county with a tax ceiling and a Fire Department that spends more on overtime than any other department.

Retroactive pay for the 143 paramedics who brought the lawsuit could add nearly $4 million to the EMS/Fire/Rescue budget of $46.6 million, officials said. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, rendered Feb. 18 in Richmond, Va., could open the door to suits for overtime by firefighters who give medical aid.

The ruling's possible repercussions could change the Fire Department's structure and harden distinctions between firefighters and paramedics that the fire chief has struggled to obliterate.

It also is likely to nudge the county toward user fees for emergency medical care as the Fire Department expands service to a growing population.

"This ruling is going to be watched across the country," said Alan Caldwell, director of government relations at the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "Anne Arundel County is a little different than other [fire] departments, but it ain't that different."

Anne Arundel County set a national precedent in 1972 when it began training firefighters in basic life support techniques and paramedics in fire suppression. Since then, the majority of the nation's fire departments have begun to cross-train employees.

In those municipalities, paramedics are paid like firefighters and police, who, by federal law, must work 53 hours before overtime pay begins.

But paramedics in a dozen states have sued their local governments for overtime after 40 hours and won because the court ruled they were not typically firefighters and spent most of their time in medical aid.

Thus, the court ruled, they could could not be classified or paid in the same way as their counterparts.

Anne Arundel's case marks the first time paramedics who are also firefighters have brought an overtime lawsuit. During the court battle, their lawyers argued that the paramedics should be paid overtime after working more than 40 hours a week because they rarely if ever fight fires, despite their training.

Another complication is that nearly all firefighters who are also trained in EMS -- not just paramedics -- spend more time on calls for medical help than for fires.

Last year in Anne Arundel, 74 percent of calls were related to emergency medical services.

The figure is echoed nationwide in communities where emergency medical care is handled through the fire department, Caldwell said.

"By the court's [interpretation] of this law, we're in a position that people who are firefighters won't be construed as firefighters," said county fire administrator Stephen Halford.

"What we're worried about is the potential change we have to do to our whole system. The potential impact to the communities and the taxpayers who pay for this service will be devastating."

Halford has suggested changing shift patterns and cutting back the number of hours paramedics work in a pay period if the county is forced to pay the overtime before a judicial review is completed.

Taxpayers already spend more on overtime for Fire Department employees than other county workers.

The fire budget includes $1.3 million for overtime -- about $300,000 more than in the Police Department budget, which has the second-most overtime -- and $1 million more than overtime money for Detention Center personnel.

For the past two years, the county's top-paid employee has been fire Capt. John Thompson. He made $97,730 last year, more than $43,000 of it in bonus pay, a type of overtime for Fire Department command staff. Fire Lt. David Bond was the fifth-highest-paid employee in the county at $90,995, more than $40,000 of it in bonus pay.

Both men earned more than Halford, who last year was paid $90,285, and County Executive John G. Gary, who made $84,000. Last year, one paramedic collected more than $24,000 in overtime, and another more than $18,000.

The court ruling could force the department to pad its overtime budget to cover back pay for paramedics, Halford said. Gary has asked for a study of department staffing to determine whether money in the overtime budget would be better spent hiring more firefighters and fluctuating the department's staffing level with peak activity times.

Halford said the decision "will definitely impact how we approach expanding EMS" as the population grows.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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