Living wage would be mark of real progress for EMS providers

Low hourly wages is a main contributor to most career EMS providers working two or more jobs

Writing about the slow decline of volunteer EMS in this country got me to thinking about the career EMS providers — the EMT or paramedic who earns a living providing field care services.

Last year’s "Fight for Fifteen" movement of increasing the hourly wage of fast food workers inadvertently opened a Pandora’s box of sorts — many EMS providers were critical, expressing their frustration with how little they were paid for the hours of training and education, and the level of responsibility entrusted to them by the public. My response then is the same as it is now. We ought to support any movement that raises the income of workers so that they can raise a family, have a life with them and retire with enough savings to live out their lives with a roof over their heads, food on the table and medications in the cabinet.

This goes for us career EMS providers, just as surely as anyone else. Most career folks that I know work two or more jobs, put in over 56 hours a week, or both.

Low hourly wages for EMS providers is a main contributor to this situation. Precisely how much the average wage is nationally is anyone’s guess. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps all EMS providers into one category, regardless of training level. According to the feds, we earn a median income of $31,980 annually. That’s about $15.38 per hour, assuming a 40-hour workweek. The same source also indicates that the lowest 10 percent of EMS wage earners made less than $20,860 in 2014, or $10 per hour.

This doesn’t take into account some of the wage shenanigans that have been done over the years, like not compensating EMS providers for the overnight part of a 24-hour shift or not paying for uninterrupted meal breaks. Wages also don't account for the mindset that an adequate income can be had, but only by working copious amounts of overtime. Let’s all consider that EMS is a round-the-clock operation, with no breaks for weekends or holidays.

The education that is required to be a certified or licensed EMS provider is no small amount. EMTs typically require 200 hours or more, and paramedics average about 1,300 hours of training. In contrast, it takes about 80 hours to become a phlebotomist (median income $32,770), 700 hours to become a medical assistant ($30,590) or 1,500 hours to become a cosmetologist ($50,000 including tips).

To most of us, these statistics really don’t matter much. We love what we do, despite the long hours away from home and the low wages. Imagine how many of would stay on the job if we could make enough to support a life without killing ourselves. That would be the mark of real progress.

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