Poll call: You’re working a lot of overtime, why?

One-third of EMS1 poll respondents picked up 16 or more overtime shifts in the last three months

Local media loves writing headlines about a small number of cops, firefighters or paramedics who earned an eye-popping salary of more than $150,000 in the past year. But wages that high, in most locations, are only possible by picking up hundreds of hours of overtime. Though there are a small number of medics working 1,000 hours or more hours of additional work, picking up overtime shifts or being mandated to work additional hours has long been a fact of life for every EMS provider. 

The prevalence of overtime work opportunities for employees and the need for employees to fill those shifts, like many things, has been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, economic inflation, and the persistent recruitment and retention crisis. Meanwhile, the demand for EMS services continues to increase while the availability of ambulances and personnel decreases. More calls plus longer offload times with less staff is the perfect recipe for lots of overtime opportunities.  

EMS1 overtime poll 

More than 500 EMS1 readers responded to this poll question, “How often have you picked up an overtime shift in the last 3 months?”  

More than one-third of respondents (34%) have picked up 16 or more overtime shifts in the last three months. Fourteen percent of respondents picked up overtime shifts 11 to 15 times, 21% picked up overtime shifts six to 10 times, and 23% picked up overtime shifts 1 to 5 times. Only 8% of respondents have not worked overtime in the last three months.  

There are several limitations to single question poll from a convenience sample of EMS1 readers. The respondent’s regular shift length and overtime shift lengths are not known. The poll also doesn’t reveal the location of the respondent’s overtime shift – it might have been their primary EMS employee, their secondary EMS employer or a non-EMS employer. The poll also doesn’t explore why the respondents are working overtime or if they would pick up even more shifts if they were available to them.  

Nonetheless, a paramedic who normally works nine or 10 24-hour shifts in a month might be adding five or more 24-hour shifts per month, based on the poll results. A 50% increase in work hours is a significant boost to the paramedic’s bank account deposits, but the extra work may also be making significant debits from their mental and physical wellbeing accounts.  

Overtime, what’s in it for me?  

 If you are going to pick overtime shifts, have a reason or rationale for taking on the extra work. Some of the reasons for working overtime might include:  

  • Gaining more clinical patient care experience in a shorter time frame to prepare for a promotion, paramedic school or other healthcare career.  

  • Saving towards a specific goal, like setting up an emergency fund for unexpected expenses, or purchasing a home or vehicle.  

  • Paying off credit card, college or other debt.  

  • Currying favor with your supervisor or employer as someone available and willing to take on extra assignments.  

Understand that the extra income comes with costs 

A normal EMS shift, regardless of its length, can be mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. Doubling or tripling the hours spent at work may increase the negative impacts of EMS work that in the short- and long-term, outweigh the extra income. EMS providers who work more hours are likely at greater risk for: 

  • Fatigue-related medication mistakes and driving errors 

  • Obesity, strains and sprains, and viral infections 

Time is the only thing that we can never get more of. Time spent at work is time we don’t have to spend with friends and family, to nurture relationships that are important to us or to pursue hobbies and other personal interests. For most EMS providers, they can sleep better, eat healthier and exercise more off-duty than they are able to do on-duty.  

Calculate the opportunity cost 

Choosing to work an overtime shift means forgoing another opportunity. Working overtime can become a cycle that is difficult to break out of. Make sure to ask yourself, “what else could I be doing with my time?” Instead of working overtime, you could be working on your personal health, relationships or hobbies. You could be investing in your future by completing a college degree or other professional training to help advance your career.  

Straining workforce won’t solve systemic problems 

Working overtime isn’t inherently bad as there are lots of reasons some overtime can be beneficial personally, professionally and financially. But you should also be comfortable saying “no thanks” to an overtime request.  

EMS faces many systemic challenges, from inadequate reimbursement to an overburdened and overwhelmed healthcare system. It’s not the responsibility or obligation of already strained and stressed EMS providers to be a relatively easy solution to their EMS employer’s inability to solve those problems, as well as the recruitment and retention challenges that plague the profession.  

Read more: Gordon Graham reminds public safety personnel that scams to claim overtime pay are theft and personnel who partake in those schemes are likely to get caught, lose their jobs and be prosecuted for theft of government funds.  

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