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EMS workers plagued by long hours, low wages, limited sleep

November 15, 2018 07:47 PM

Long hours, low wages and limited sleep. It's a recipe for disaster -- especially for those whose job it is to save lives.

Last year, this issue came to the forefront after a deadly crash involving an ambulance driver who fell asleep at the wheel.

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NewsChannel 13's investigation discovered there are multiple issues at play that are putting the entire emergency medical service industry at risk.

You make the call. A dispatcher sends an ambulance. However, what many in emergency medical service want you to know is the industry itself is in need of help.

"If things don't change, it's quite plausible that a lot of agencies will not be here," said Daniel Shuttig, the UPSEU Local 1222 representative.

Shuttig has been negotiating for higher wages for EMS union employees like Tonya Danish and Alyssa Bevilacqua Shufelt.

"At the end of this year, we'll be $12.75 for a fast food establishment. That will probably be more than quite a few EMTs make throughout New York state," Shuttig said.

When Danish first began working as an EMT at Mohawk Ambulance, she was making $8 and change an hour. Now, almost 14 years later, she earns not even twice that amount.

"Nobody should have to work 100 hours a week just to get insurance," she said.

The company requires a minimum of eight hours in between shifts, but she says as a result of low wages, many employees often work multiple jobs in what would be their "off" time. 

"Theoretically, people are probably getting about four hours of sleep in that whole time frame while gone," said Danish.

"The fear that somebody has to live with that, or the fear that anybody could fall asleep behind the wheel and take out themselves, their partners, innocent bystanders is absolutely frightening," said Bevilacqua Shufelt.

That's exactly what happened to her last year, when her co-worker, driver Cody Bryans, fell asleep at the wheel, causing them to crash into a tree, killing their passenger.

"On a weekly basis, people are so overtired that they're micro-sleeping while driving," said Bevilacqua Shufelt.

EMTs are exhausted and underpaid, but that just scratches the surface.

"Medicaid is our biggest problem. It's about 50 percent of our calls. It pays about a half or a third of what Medicare pays," said Alan Mendelsohn, the Fulton County Ambulance Service director.

Medicare is the same nationwide. Medicaid compensation varies from state to state and county to county.

For example, a patient who is transported from Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville to Albany Medical Center will garner a $212 reimbursement.

However, Fulton County Ambulance Service will incur more than twice that in direct costs, causing non-profits to buckle and over time, shut down.

"We're barely getting by. We're hanging on by our fingernails," said Mendelsohn.

When an ambulance responds to, but does not transport a patient to the hospital, insurance companies will not compensate them for time, medication or equipment used, again, putting the company in the red.

"The demand for 911 service is just rising and the resources are here," said Gary Favro, a Troy retired fire captain and 30-year paramedic. "They're not even close to meeting," he said, spreading his hands far apart.

"You'll be waiting 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes for an ambulance in a few years," warned Shuttig.

Applying for state aid could help offset some of those expenses. However, New York state doesn't consider EMS a required service like with police and fire. It's yet another roadblock that leaves ambulance companies unable to apply for grants.

"In a perfect world, I'd like to see the governor appoint a task force or something along those lines to look at all the problems in EMS," said Favro. 

The next time you make that call, remember, you may not be the only one who is facing an emergency.

"Everybody needs to understand what really goes on," said Danish. "We are very passionate about our jobs, but something has to give here."

NewsChannel 13 reached out to Mohawk Ambulance for comment on this issue. They say they are currently engaged in negotiations that would make the new wage rates, if accepted, the highest pay standards by a private ambulance service in our area.

Under the proposal, full-time EMTs would earn $14.75 an hour with a three percent pay increase when a new agreement is signed.

Under the current contract, employees should have at least eight consecutive hours of rest in between shifts, except in emergency situations.

They also say no disciplinary action is taken against an employee who says they are too tired to perform their duties, unless it is found they are abusing or taking advantage of this protection.

NewsChannel 13 also reached out to the governor's office. The Health Department responded, saying they are studying the issue of EMS not being an essential service in our state. They plan to request additional guidance on the topic from the state EMS Council.

We'll be following up with lawmakers when the session begins, to see if they'll reintroduce legislation to make EMS an essential service in New York state.

See more of Karen Tararache's report here.

Credits

Karen Tararache

Copyright 2018 WNYT-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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