Working toward justice for all EMS workers

It's time for EMS providers to advocate for their rights to equitable wages and a safer workplace


California Assembly Bill #263, the EMS Workers Bill of Rights, lit up Twitter feeds and Facebook pages when it was introduced by Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez.

Labor studies conducted by both University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Los Angeles confirm what has been known by most of us long-term providers for a long time: Private sector EMS workers are underpaid compared to public sector providers, work under difficult conditions and are often unable to take breaks as typically afforded to workers in other industries.

With those factors, combined with a much higher than typical level of post-traumatic stress and a lack of comfort stations, there should be no surprise that the high turnover in the industry results in a workforce that never reaches maturity.

I'm neither a private nor public sector supporter. I simply want EMS systems to work for their communities. That includes the workers who are the backbone of system operations.

Unique stressors of private EMS

When there are distinct groups of employees who perform the same function but for dramatically different wage compensation and working conditions, there is something that isn't going right.

Should firefighters who provide EMS functions be compensated for delivering EMS care and transport? Absolutely, and many are recognized with appropriate wages and benefits in exchange for the different competencies they achieve. 

But that does not provide any sort of rationale why single function EMS workers are paid as little as they are, or the level of working conditions they are subject to.

In fact, I'll put out there that private sector EMS workers are subject to unique stressors that contribute to burnout, such as high call volume associated with interfacility transfers. One might not think that taking a patient home from a hospital or taking a patient to dialysis or chemotherapy is stressful, but when those calls are thrown on top of the daily workload of emergency calls, meeting time performance markers and posting in parking lots, the workload becomes even more stressful.

Start toward equity for EMS workers

In reviewing the EMS Workers Bill of Rights language, it is but a start toward creating equity within the system. This initiative dovetails with the ongoing efforts such as the Fight for Fifteen initiative to bring equity to entry-level service jobs.

My friend and fellow EMS1 columnist David Givot recently wrote about this assembly bill. He makes many points that I strongly agree with about this bill. It may be true that this bill may not be the place to talk about compensation. However, if the law making process brings to light this very pivotal issue that fractures the foundation of long-term maturation of the profession.

While the bill may run into rough waters in the California legislature, it will shed light on the issue of pay inequity in EMS that exists in many parts of California and throughout the United States. It's up to us to continue this critical dialogue with our legislators, push for the research evidence needed to support an equity agenda and revise reimbursement strategies and publicly funded approaches that support such initiatives.

We have advocated for our patients for a long time. It's time to advocate for ourselves. 

About the author

Art Hsieh, MA, NRP teaches in Northern California at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. An EMS provider since 1982, Art has served as a line medic, supervisor and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. Art is a textbook writer, author of "EMT Exam for Dummies," has presented at conferences nationwide and continues to provide direct patient care regularly. Art is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Contact Art at Art.Hsieh@ems1.com and connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.

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