‘Bill of Rights’ Proposed to Improve California EMS Field

Additional requirements would be imposed on emergency medical services providers

By Toni Vranjes Feb 27, 2017
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During his 22 years in the emergency medical services (EMS) field as a firefighter, emergency medical technician (EMT) and paramedic, Justin Schorr has been bitten, punched, scratched, elbowed and kneed by patients.

"We are discouraged from fighting back," said Schorr, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Fighting back is dangerous because it could upset a patient further. It could also bring complaints by patients or bystanders and punitive actions, such as being fired, he told SHRM Online.

Schorr's experiences highlight the often hazardous and stressful conditions in the EMS field. To help combat these situations, California state Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, has introduced A.B. 263.

The purpose of the bill is to reduce incidents of workplace violence, improve access to mental health care for EMS workers and ensure that employees get uninterrupted work breaks.

Rodriguez cited a new report by California researchers, which found poor working conditions among private-sector EMS workers in the state.

"A.B. 263 recognizes that for too long, private-sector EMTs and paramedics have been forgotten," Rodriguez—who is also an EMT—said at a press conference on Feb. 7.

"That stops today," he added.

Wages and Working Conditions

There are nearly 17,000 EMTs and paramedics in the state, according to the report, which was released by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and the UCLA Labor Center. About 80 percent of them are employed by private firms.

The high number of emergency workers in the private sector is relevant because private-sector jobs "lag well behind their public-sector counterparts in terms of job quality, compensation and opportunities for career advancement," the report stated.

Long hours are a reality for many in the EMS field. Typically, EMTs and paramedics in the United States have shifts lasting 12 hours to 24 hours, according to the report.

The researchers also found that 36 percent of California private-sector EMS workers earn less than $13.63 an hour.

Moreover, 25 percent of private-sector EMTs and paramedics make $11.19 per hour or less, according to the report.

"Those are very low wages for extremely important work," Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, told SHRM Online.

Another problem in the industry: it's very difficult for workers to take uninterrupted meal and rest breaks. One major reason is the practice of "posting," which the researchers define as "placing an EMT or paramedic unit on a street corner or parking lot to await calls, rather than having [the unit] wait in a central, fixed comfort station."

Posting also may be difficult for employees because of the uncomfortable conditions in the ambulance.

The report stated: "When EMTs post on a corner for a long shift, they do not have enough space and are unable to take proper meal, bathroom and rest breaks."

Schorr said that he doesn't really consider them to be "breaks" but rather "pauses in calls for service." Workers are still on call during these pauses, he noted.

Meanwhile, EMS workers encounter horrible accident scenes, workplace violence and other stressors in the course of their work. Among the health risks are "ambulance accidents or impact with other moving vehicles, potentially violent patients, and exposure to pathogens," the report stated.

All of this can take a huge toll on workers. The number of employees affected by mental health problems is astounding, Saba Waheed, research director of the UCLA Labor Center, told SHRM Online.

For instance, about 4 in 10 EMTs have considered suicide, according to the report. The rates of suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are higher among EMS workers than workers in the general population, the report stated.

While the demands are grueling, the work is very rewarding because of the ability to help patients, said Schorr, who has a blog called The Happy Medic.

EMS Workers' Bill of Rights

A.B. 263 is intended to help private-sector EMS employees with many of the difficulties of the job.

One goal of the bill is to clarify that the California Supreme Court's ruling in Augustus v. ABM Security Services applies to EMS workers, according to a document issued by Rodriguez's office. That ruling held that California workers need to have uninterrupted rest breaks, and the bill would codify the court's decision.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the meal and rest break requirements for California employees?]

The bill also seeks to address workplace violence. EMS employers would need to establish a workplace violence prevention plan under the proposed law. The plan would include worker education and training, as well as procedures for responding to and reducing violent incidents.

A.B. 263 also proposes record-keeping and reporting requirements. Under the bill, EMS providers would have to document all violent incidents against EMS workers and retain the documentation for five years. EMS providers would also have to report incidents to the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

The division would be required to post a report on its website annually providing details about violent incidents, beginning by January 2020. The posting of these incidents would be done in a way that protects employee and patient confidentiality, according to the bill.

In addition, Rodriguez's office plans to add mental health provisions to A.B. 263.

The introduction of the bill is a good step in the right direction, Schorr said. If nothing else, he said, it raises awareness of conditions in the industry.

Toni Vranjes is a freelance business writer in San Pedro, Calif.

 

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