UNDERPAID?

Since March 2014, 18 Jackson County Emergency Medical Services employees have taken other jobs.

The common denominator? Pay.

In conducting exit interviews with those people, executive director Dennis Brasher learned all but two of them were leaving because of the low pay rate. Losing 18 people was tough because that’s nearly half the workforce, he said.

That prompted Brasher and some of his employees, including paramedics Nate Bryant and Mary Tabeling, to conduct research on pay rates of EMS organizations in surrounding counties that are comparable in size and run volume. They also looked at the pay of fire departments and hospitals, since those are among the places people went to for a better-paying job.

The result? The pay rates of Jackson County EMS personnel were 27 percent lower than the average.

That was staggering news to Brasher, who has worked in the field since 1978 and has been executive director of Jackson County EMS since it started in 1991.

“We just can’t stay competitive anymore with the marketplace because our pay rate is just so low,” he said. “We’re just a revolving door here. Ultimately, they just come here and stay for a short period of time, and they find something else. That’s a shame because some of them are very high-quality employees that you do not want to lose.”

Tabeling said she was shocked by the results.

“I knew that we were paid less than other services, but I never would have dreamed it was that significant of an amount,” she said. “We have had a lot of previous employees, however, think that they would have remained employed at the ambulance service had they been making as much money as they would be elsewhere.”

Bryant also said he was surprised by the 27 percent difference. He said the people who left combined for 83 years of experience with Jackson County EMS, and some had previous experience at other places.

The starting pay rates at Jackson County EMS are $9.49 for emergency medical technicians, $10.06 for advanced EMTs, $11.51 for paramedics, $11.91 for supervisors, $19.01 for training/quality assurance coordinators and $22.72 for the executive director.

All of those numbers are below the average of area EMS, hospitals and fire departments.

Changes difficult

Jackson County Council President Leon Pottschmidt said the council is willing to listen to the concerns about retention problems.“We’re going to try to do everything we can, but I don’t how much we can help,” he said.During hearings in the summer for the 2016 county budget, Brasher proposed a 9 percent pay increase for his employees. But in the end, they only received 3 percent.

“We went in with the intent of going with a 9 percent (raise) per year for three years,” he said. “That way, that would give our long-term people here kind of a light at the end of the tunnel. They came back with 3 percent, which is not going to help.”

Pottschmidt said the 3 percent increase was an attempt by the council to help some since most county employees only received a 2 percent raise.

Brasher now wants to work with the county council to discuss ways to help his employees get closer to the average pay rates.

During the council’s meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Jackson County Courthouse annex in Brownstown, Brasher and some of his personnel will give a presentation explaining what they do on a daily basis and sharing information on the research and surveys.

“When we started seeing the bleeding, we knew we had to figure out why and how we can stop it and slow it down,” Brasher said of the pay differentiation.

‘Work collectively’

He said the intention is to work in conjunction with the council, not to work against them.“We don’t want a negative feeling when we walk into that council meeting,” he said. “The council has been very supportive of us. They have a great willingness to work with us. We want to work collectively with them. We don’t want to go in with a hateful attitude or anything.“We’re wanting to go and try to share ideas with them on how we can fund this, how they can help our people see a light at the end of the tunnel and say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to stay because I know it’s going to get better,’” he said.

One result could be an emergency appropriation to provide funds for salaries and wages, which has been done for other entities in the county in the past.

“It is an Indiana Code law that as long as the council votes as a majority, they can make an emergency appropriation, and one of the appropriations is for salary,” Tabeling said.

In educating the council on what EMTs and paramedics do, Bryant said, it’s important to note that EMS is a relatively new profession. While police and fire departments have been around for more than 100 years, EMS didn’t start until the early 1970s.

Trained and licensed

Another part of the presentation will focus on how paramedics have to be registered and licensed through the state of Indiana, while EMTs hold certifications.In Indiana, the required amount of training is 144½ hours for an EMT basic, an additional 85 hours for an advanced EMT and an additional minimum of 1,250 hours for a paramedic.

Didactic plus verification of skill competency also is required in all three positions every two years as continuing education. It’s 40 hours for EMT basic, 54 hours for advanced EMT and 72 hours for paramedic.

“I don’t think that the general public realizes how much training there is to be a paramedic,” Tabeling said.

The presentation also will discuss what paramedics and EMTs do during their shifts. In Jackson County, they work 24 hours and then take 48 hours off.

They have a checklist they have to go over to ensure each ambulance has all of the equipment necessary for when they go out on emergency calls. The amount of required equipment and medications to have on board an ambulance changes often, Brasher said.

Jackson County EMS was one of six services in the state to earn the American Heart Association Mission: Lifeline award for treatment of heart attack patients.

“We’re second-to-none on our equipment,” Brasher said. “We’ve got the best equipment there is out there.”

Hospital on wheels

Based on the volume in the first five months of this year, Jackson County EMS projects to make more than 6,724 runs, up from 6,037 last year. When the service started in 1991, they made 3,424 runs.When they arrive at scenes, EMS personnel never know what they are encountering.

“The ideology that we put (patients) in the back of an ambulance and have to hurry and get them to the hospital, what (people) are not taking into account is that most of the lifesaving procedures that they are going to perform in the hospital is what we’re doing in the back of an ambulance, so we save that time,” Bryant said. “It could be 20 minutes on the way to the hospital, and a lot can happen in 20 minutes.”

Some of the situations can be dangerous. While they work closely with law enforcement and fire departments, paramedics or EMTs sometimes are the first to arrive on the scene.

“You can read all over the news nowadays paramedics are being attacked because of certain reasons,” Bryant said. “We have nothing really to protect ourselves. We don’t have weapons that police do. We don’t have any of that.”

Tabeling said they are pretty much on their own to defend themselves in those situations. Then there is the liability they carry when performing medical care in the back of an ambulance.

“The responsibility that we carry is very great,” she said.

With the lower pay rates, 80 percent of the Jackson County EMS employees have other jobs to make extra money.

They then have to balance their days with their other jobs, spending time with their families and trying to catch up on things around the house. Often, there’s not much disposable income.

“I think our people just don’t want to have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” Tabeling said.

Keeping experienced staff

Pottschmidt said finding funding to help the agency grow and increase pay also is hard to do.For the current employees, Bryant said, being able to help people in their job is a passion, and he wants to see those people stay.

“We still have, in my opinion, the best caregivers in this part of the state. The people we work with are just top-notch, but we have lost a lot of experience,” he said. “Currently, we have employees that are in paramedic school, and it’s going to take them two years to finish. We want to keep these experienced people here so that they are able to learn from people that have been doing it for some time.”

Brasher said he looks forward to positive collaboration with county officials and hopes they can reach a resolution.

“We know they can’t do it overnight,” he said. “We understand that, and we don’t want to be paid above average. We just want to get to be average. I think that would make everyone just happy around here.”

If you go

What: Jackson County Council meeting

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Jackson County Courthouse annex, 220 E. Walnut St., Brownstown

On the agenda: Jackson County Emergency Medical Services personnel will make a presentation.

By the numbers

In terms of starting hourly pay, how does Jackson County Emergency Medical Services stack up against surrounding counties’ organizations?

Service;EMT;Advanced EMT;Paramedic;Supervisor;Training/quality coordinator;Executive director

King’s Daughters’ Hospital;$9.78;$10.78;$13.78;—;—;—

Scott County;$11.44;$12.26;$14.01;—;—;—

Jasper;$10.14;$13.60;$15.77;—;—;—

Ripley County;$10.40;$12.48;$15.95;—;—;—

Harrison County;$10;$11;$14;—;—;—

Seals Ambulance;$12;$14;$16.50;—;—;—

Bedford;$11;$12;$15.50;—;—;—

Indianapolis;$12;$12.50;$13.54;$14.39;$30.52;$37.67

Seymour Fire Department;$15.96;—;—;$17.95;$24.92;$33.92

Schneck Medical Center;—;—;$17;—;—;—

Columbus Regional Health;$10.95;—;$14.63;—;—;—

Jackson County EMS;$9.49;$10.06;$11.51;$11.91;$19.01;$22.72

Average;$11.36;$12.33;$15.07;$16.17;$27.72;$35.79

Source: Jackson County Emergency Medical Services

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.