Baltimore offers $7,500 EMS retention bonus to counter staffing shortage
Baltimore EMS personnel will be eligible for the retention bonus if they stay on the job for the next three years
By Emily Opilo
BALTIMORE — With one in four Baltimore EMS positions currently vacant, the city’s spending board approved a recruitment and retention bonus of $7,500 per employee Wednesday.
The bonus, which is expected to cost the city about $2.2 million, requires employees to remain with the city for three years in exchange for the payment. Eligible employees, who agree to remain with the force for the next three years, will receive the retention bonus over three installments in January, March and July. Recruitment bonuses will be paid in two installments, one when members graduate from the training academy and another when they exit their probationary period.
The five-member Board of Estimates approved the bonuses by a unanimous vote Wednesday.
Fire Chief James Wallace told the board that the market for EMS providers has become very competitive and the pool of potential employees has shrunk in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re trying to better strategically not only reach out and attract people to the city of Baltimore to the Fire Department but also retain the talent that we have right now so that we can begin to stabilize,” he said.
The bonuses come as the city’s Fire Department, which includes EMS, faces devastating shortages of employees. At a hearing before the Baltimore City Council in December, Jamarr Rayne, the department’s human resources officer, said EMS faces a 27% vacancy rate. The department as a whole has a 10% vacancy rate, he said.
Rayne told the council that city EMS employees have fled to surrounding jurisdictions that pay a comparable wage but offer one-third of the workload. Emergency medical technicians or EMTs start at $41,841 in Baltimore. That pay increases to $79,368 at 25 years. Paramedics begin at $59,036 with pay increasing to $115,305 after 25 years.
The staffing shortages have already cost the city in overtime paid to the remaining employees to cover shifts. The department ended fiscal year 2023 in June with an $18.9 million deficit, most of which was attributable to overtime, budget officials reported to the City Council last year.
Council President Nick Mosby, one of five members of the city spending board, asked Wednesday whether the bonuses will put city EMS at a competitive advantage or simply get Baltimore “in the game.”
Wallace said the bonuses will get Baltimore “in the fight.”
“I think we still have work to do to be in a more competitive advantage,” he said. “Cities comparable in size to us struggle as well, but we don’t want to be part of this struggle. We want to be out in front of this.”
While there was consensus that the bonuses are needed to stave off further losses, getting them out the door has been a struggle, city fire union leaders told The Baltimore Sun.
Matthew Coster, president of the local union representing the city’s rank-and-file firefighters, said city leaders assured members who signed on for the bonus that their first payments would be made Dec. 29 . That did not happen, he said. Only after union leadership made inquiries were the bonuses sent to the Board of Estimates for approval, he said.
“We cannot have this continue to happen as we are trying desperately to keep our members and recruit new ones,” Coster said Tuesday. “Who wants to work for a city that is insanely busy with its workload but also can’t pay its people correctly?”
The scope of the bonus has also been limited. EMTs and paramedics are eligible, but EMS officers, who are trained in those fields but have risen to management positions, were not eligible, said Josh Fannon , head of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association. The city currently has more than 40 EMS officers.
“We believe retention is important for all of the ranks in the Fire Department, and one of the biggest places where we’re falling behind in being competitive with other jurisdictions is in pay,” Fannon said. “While I think it’s good we’re recognizing the need with EMTs and paramedics, I think their supervisors, who are starting to leave as well before retirement, deserve adequate compensation for retention also.”
The bonus is not the first to be offered in recent years by Baltimore where several departments have faced high numbers of vacancies. In mid-2022, the Baltimore Police Department offered a $5,000 signing bonus to new employees joining the department. Recently, that bonus was doubled to $10,000. Up to $5,000 of annual student loan assistance is available for police officers and referral bonuses of $5,000-$7,500 per employee are offered.
As of June, the police department had 522 vacant positions, 338 of which were vacant jobs dedicated to patrol. The fiscal year 2024 budget includes funding for 918 patrol positions.
In March, Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, announced that the city was also offering $10,000 bonuses to existing and new employees with commercial driver’s licenses in the city departments of public works, transportation, recreation and parks, and general services. At the time, the city had 106 eligible drivers and was hoping to hire 42 more.