A Question of Hours

Recent court rulings fail to settle a firestorm over how localities should deal with overtime pay for paramedics.
by | December 2006

Paramedics and firefighters increasingly train together, respond to emergency calls together and work the same 24-hour shifts together. But there's a critical rift between these two merging professions when it comes to how cities and counties pay paramedics for overtime.

It's potentially a costly problem for local governments. What's worse, federal courts are of two minds about how to settle it. In September, a federal district court held that Philadelphia need not pay paramedics time-and-a-half for work over 40 hours a week--as it does not pay firefighters. In a separate case last year in Los Angeles, a federal appeals court came to the opposite conclusion. The court held that Los Angeles owed paramedics $5 million for unpaid overtime.

The dispute stems from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. That law recognizes that firefighters and police officers often work unusual platoon schedules, exempting them from the normal 40-hour work week. As more and more fire departments merged firefighting and emergency medical duties, there was much litigation around the question of whether this exemption applied to paramedics, too. In 1999, Congress passed an amendment to the FLSA that was supposed to clear up the confusion. It hasn't worked out that way.

The amendment said that paramedics would be treated like firefighters for overtime purposes--with a couple of caveats. In order to be exempted from the 40-hour work week, paramedics had to be trained in fire suppression and have some responsibility for fighting fires. The problem is, the job duties in many fire departments don't break so neatly.

For example, the judge who sided with Philadelphia noted that paramedics train at the fire academy, carry fire protective gear and occasionally pitch in at fire scenes. In the Los Angeles case, on the other hand, the judges noted that ambulances aren't regularly dispatched to fire scenes nor are Los Angeles paramedics suited with fire gear. "Unfortunately, the effect is a patchwork across the country of different rulings," says George Voegele, the lawyer who represented Philadelphia. "It's such a fact-specific inquiry into how paramedics are trained and utilized that when courts weigh the factors, it's led to different results."

Local governments find the Los Angeles precedent particularly worrisome. Paying paramedics time-and-a-half for working more than 40 hours a week would cost municipalities $500 million a year, associations representing local governments estimate. What local governments have to fall back on is a letter from the U.S. Department of Labor that offers some cover for treating paramedics the same as firefighters. "Cities can obviously still be sued," says Christina Chiappetta, of the International Public Management Association. "But it gives cities something to rely on."

Alan Kaufman disagrees. Kaufman, a lawyer with the firm that represented paramedics in both the Los Angeles and Philadelphia cases, says that the Labor Department's letter is not binding and that the overall tide of court decisions has favored paramedics. "That $500 million figure is nothing but hyperbole," Kaufman says. "From my perspective, there's nothing wrong. Congress passed a statute. It says what it says."