5 reasons why EMS doesn't deserve higher pay

A hero mindset, low educational standards and reluctance to evolve into new health care roles will keep EMS pay at current levels


By Sean Eddy

A lot of people aren‘t going to like what I have to say, but just because we don‘t like something, doesn‘t mean it shouldn‘t be said. Lately, my EMS newsfeeds have been flooded with stories about the outrage over our wages. In some cases, EMTs and paramedics are even walking the streets, holding up signs DEMANDING that we “receive the wages we deserve."

This is NOT how we need to go about making change in our industry, and it certainly isn‘t how we are going to improve our public image. What we have done is effectively placed ourselves in the same category as the people demanding a higher minimum wage while at the same time refusing to do anything extra to earn it. Stop, just stop.

(Photo/Pixabay)
(Photo/Pixabay)

I‘m not without guilt here, either. There was a time when I was the one complaining about our wages and our job requirements. I used to throw out the “We Save Lives” B.S. and I even went on to compare us to those in poverty. But you know what? I freaking grew up. I took responsibility for my life and my decisions. I acknowledged the fact that nobody forced me into this career field. In fact, more people tried to talk me out of it. So tell me again who‘s to blame here?

A while back, I abolished the word “deserve” from my vocabulary and replaced it with things like “earn." Instead of saying “I deserve better”, I say “I can do better." Nobody owes me a thing and I‘ll be damned if I‘m going to stand in the streets with my hands out waiting for someone to throw me a bone.

I took control of my life. I paid off debt, I learned how to budget, I quit buying things I couldn‘t afford and I prepared for financial emergencies. And guess what? I did it all on a ... wait for it ... EMS SALARY. Now I do cool things like go on trips, take on new hobbies and actually enjoy life. Funny how that becomes possible when I take action rather than stand around crying and waiting for someone to fix all my problems.

There came a time when I decided that I do want to make more money in order to accomplish some very specific life goals. But did I call my boss and demand that he start throwing more money at me? No. I started a side business, I took up writing (you‘re welcome), and I even picked up some of the overtime shifts that we all love in EMS. Does my situation resemble everyone in our industry? Of course not, but it does show that it‘s not impossible to live on what we make. I‘ve been doing it my entire adult life, so I have somewhat of a clue as to what I‘m talking about.

OK, so it wasn‘t my intention to make this an article about me, but I did find it necessary to share my story and show that it IS possible to live a fulfilling life while earning EMS wages. So without further delay, here are my five reasons why EMS providers doen't deserve highter pay. 

1. We Don‘t Deserve Anything

you deserve a medal

Like I said, to say you deserve something implies that it‘s somehow owed to you. Jobs are a two-way agreement. You show up and do your job as expected, and you get compensated at the rate that you agreed to work for. We weren‘t forced into this job. We applied, interviewed, tested and ACCEPTED a job offer that included an hourly rate. We gave our word that we would do our job to the best of our abilities for an agreed-upon salary. By going out and now complaining or making demands, we have effectively gone back on our word.

2. We Need Higher Educational Standards

Can I say that again? WE NEED HIGHER EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS. You want to picket about something? Picket about that! And no, higher pay doesn‘t come first. You don‘t go to your local mediocre burger joint and voluntarily pay them double what they normally charge with the hopes that it will somehow motivate them to make a better burger. So why should our employers do it? After all, if all we‘ve been able to accomplish is to compare ourselves to fast food workers, then we have accomplished nothing. You want better pay? Produce a better product.

3. We Are Responsible for Our Own Actions

sean connery blame meme

At some point, we have got to stop blaming other people for our financial woes. Every day that we show up to work, we know exactly what we are getting into. We know the hours, the working conditions, the living arrangements and yes, the pay. We talk about how it‘s “so terrible,” yet we continue to show up every day. When we do nothing but hold up signs and make ignorant Facebook posts, we accomplish nothing more than the rest of the medical community looking at us like we‘re that friend who insists upon remaining in a dysfunctional relationship.

I‘m not saying that we don‘t have a right to seek higher pay, because I‘m all for pushing for the advancement of our career. Where I have a problem is with the entitlement mentality. If we want higher pay, we need to make changes all around.

4. We‘re Not Looking at the Big Picture

We like to pretend that EMS financial problems begin and end with our paychecks. The fact is, we are an industry that‘s still in its infancy. Our reimbursement structure has literally failed to the point of nearly collapsing the industry. Those services that don‘t have the luxury of a nice tax base are forced to employ measures like cost-shifting in order to make ends meet. Plus, let‘s not forget that payroll remains the single largest expense for most services. For the thousands of EMS services that are barely getting by with what little reimbursement they are getting, a massive increase in payroll expenses just isn‘t feasible. We are barking up the wrong tree here.

If we want to be mad at someone, then our anger would be better directed towards the decision-makers who have allowed Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement to be as ridiculous as it is. But then again, we would just be continuing to fight a losing battle. We need new and innovative ways to generate revenue, like community paramedicine, subscription services, and more comprehensive medical care that extends past the limited scope of emergency medicine that we are used to. But once again, that requires education.

5. We Refuse to Give Up the “Life Saver” Label

Every time I hear one of my peers say something as stupid as “We Save Lives,” I want to punch someone.

We provide medical care. Does that sometimes result in “saving a life?” If you want to look at it from a glory-hogging, selfish, simplistic point of view, then perhaps. What we are is a small link in a very long chain of medical professionals who all work together to ensure the best outcome possible for the patient. To take all the credit for something like a “save” — I hate that freaking term — would be to completely ignore all the steps that were taken prior to us showing up on scene.

We forget about the people who did research, authored educational material, provided us with education, wrote protocols and authorized us to perform procedures. Many of these people who have made our jobs possible have done it for very little compensation. For example: Why do you think most medical directors continue to work full-time in the ER? It‘s not common to find physicians that solely make a good living off of something as important as being a medical director, yet are they complaining? Here‘s a homework assignment: Go find 10 medical directors and ask them what they get paid.

The hero mindset is childish and continues to hold us hostage in 1975. If we refuse to evolve into new and innovative roles, so will our pay.

Oh, and one more thing. Stop with the, “We make less than fast-food workers” B.S. Because we don‘t. OK, you want to compare our hourly pay to someone working at In-N-Out Burger? Try looking at the big picture. Most of them are only employed part-time, don‘t enjoy the “time-and-a-half” that we see working long-hour shifts and don‘t have near the benefits package we do. I guarantee you that your paycheck FAR exceeds what they‘re making, so just shut up about it.

Honestly, if you‘re going to base your job satisfaction off nothing more than hourly pay, then do the industry a favor and just quit. We have an industry to build, quality people to recruit and you‘re standing in the way.

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