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Whidbey Paramedic defends working hours, argues for levy | Sound off
By Deb Crager
I’ve worked at WGH EMS for more than 21 years, and have always been grateful to the citizens of Whidbey Island for the opportunity to do so.
The term that is being thrown about, and is causing so much confusion is “overtime.” When the system was set up 35 years ago, the hospital set up a system that paid the first eight hours as straight time, and the next 16 hours as “overtime,” making up the usual 24-hour shift, all legal. If you add up the amounts from both those wages, and divide by 24, you find the “effective” rate, which is what an employee is really making, and how our contract is negotiated.
Right now, paramedics make between $24-$36 an hour, their effective rate, less during the first eight hours, more during the 16 hours after, but that average per hour over the course of the 24-hour shift. The EMTs are paid between $14-21 an hour as an effective rate. Each day starts over, with the eight hours, sixteen hours, and the same effective rate. As we’ve added more ambulances to manage the increased call volume, the existing employees picked up the slack and extra shifts, and the high income results from the number of hours, not the pay. In addition, when personnel are off duty, they have an opportunity to take patients to other area hospitals for specialized care not available at Whidbey General. These hours are paid as a “subcontracted” rate, per transport, not as an hourly rate. By utilizing off-duty personnel, the 911 ambulances are left in place to respond to emergencies. There are no private ambulance services on Whidbey, as there would be in other cities. We are the only one, getting the patients to other hospitals or nursing homes.
No matter how many hours an EMS responder works, the benefits do not change, they are given insurance, and a vacation/paid-time-off package that matches their employment time with Whidbey General Hospital, similar benefits as other hospital employees, without additional vacation or sick leave, regardless of the number of hours worked. Many of the EMS employees reach their maximum paid time off in October.
Employees with other services may have a similar income, but may work only six or eight shifts a month, with the normal overtime rate after 48 or 54 hours, some pay double time when they have to call someone in. Our wages are competitive with other services in this area.
If, for whatever reason, we went to 12-hour shifts, or tried to limit individual hours, we would have to hire at least five or six more people. Sounds great, especially to those unemployed, but with each new employee, another benefit package is needed. Expenses increase exponentially when you include benefit packages, resulting in a larger payroll. In this way, the hospital is SAVING money, and is being very efficient in utilizing EMS personnel. But how much we work is still our choice, and when it becomes too much to do with the existing employees, then more will be hired.
Despite Mr. Born believing that only people with degrees should command such high wages, this is truly a system where experience is more important. Even so, most of us have an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree. In similar circumstances, you would not criticize a plumber or electrician, because their wages increase with experience, just as ours do. But it is still difficult to be competitive in this field without a degree of some kind.
The shape of the island is important, and cannot be ignored. If we were in Spokane, we could respond from a central location because the county is square. There are also private ambulance services, which would transport some of the less critical patients, relieving the 911 system. Instead, we respond from three different locations: one in Oak Harbor with three ambulances, one in Coupeville with one ambulance, and one in Bayview with two ambulances. Our volume of calls continues to increase each year. As each ambulance leaves its primary area, the other ambulances slide up or down to provide more coverage, decreasing response times as much as possible. Even so, some of our responses are longer than eight minutes, the national standard, because the roads are long, curvy, and difficult to navigate at higher speeds. To help close this gap, fire department personnel respond up and down the island, and start treatment immediately, keeping patients alive and working with us to stabilize our patients. We could not do it without their help.
It is easy to say that other places survive on a .25 per thousand-dollar property levy, or .37 per thousand, which we did also for years. But other areas you’ve mentioned have a higher population density, a more corporate and industrial tax base, and the lower levy amounts still generate more money than on Whidbey. We do not give rides away on Whidbey, and we do our best to treat everyone the same with consistent charges.
We offer other services, in addition to 911 transports. Prevention programs, which include CPR in the community, installing and donating car seats; giving bike helmets to the kids, and a senior fall prevention program takes the efforts of one employee, working almost full time. We’ve collaborated with several other community groups and agencies, applying for and receiving thousands in grant money to help pay for these types of programs. Our department also handles disaster preparedness, and you’ll be relieved that we are working so close with the hospital, with training programs to streamline any response in a major disaster. During an earthquake, the bridge would close and the ferry will not run for three days. We provide funds for our island-wide 911 dispatch system, and give money to the fire departments for their vital involvement in patient care.
If you watch the news over the last several years, you realize that people are becoming more depressed, more desperate, and our field, as well as that of law enforcement, is getting more dangerous. Do not underestimate the toll that these calls take on any personnel working in public service. Look at the wages within a trade publication like the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, rather than a generic website which is probably only looking at private ambulance personnel.
I appreciate the points made by Mr. Born and Dr. Borden and the rest of the taxpayers as we try to explain our payroll, and how your money is spent. Everyone should be held accountable. We’ve made mistakes, just as every business, every agency — every family — has. What happened to the economy could not have been predicted. Would your decisions have been different if you could have known that your extended family would have to survive on unemployment for several years? Would your child’s college education been postponed, could you have retired early? Would we have made better decisions regarding training, hiring, building our quarters if we’d known? Possibly.
For the last 35 years, we’ve provided emergency medical care on Whidbey Island from Deception Pass to the Clinton Ferry; and I believe we’ve done a good job. You should be proud of the system we’ve built over the decades; and we’ve been recognized regionally, state-wide, and internationally. We have a system that expands as our limited resources are needed; and then contracts as fewer personnel are used. We are, and continue to be, grateful for your support now and every day single day. I think we can improve, and your letters have given us a framework to examine where the improvements can be made, certainly with more transparency and education. This levy is not an increase, but a CONTINUATION of what has been working well for the community for so many years.
We care about the residents and visitors of Whidbey Island and try to show that each and every time we respond. We hope that you will never have to know what great care we provide when you’re in a ditch or having a heart attack. But no matter where you live on Whidbey Island, or whether you’re just passing through, we’re here for you.
Paramedic Deb Crager lives in Oak Harbor