Being a paramedic is an incredibly important job. As a “certified first responder”, you are frequently the first person on the scene of an accident with substantial medical training. Lives are saved due to your quick thinking. However, there have been multiple cases of paramedics being shorted on their wages, most frequently in the form of their overtime hours. Stop Unpaid Wages specializes in these types of cases and can help you recover these wages through a variety of means.
Paramedics and Shift Structure
Being a paramedic is a stressful, but necessary, job. Because of some peculiarities in how paramedics perform their professional duties, some unscrupulous companies may take advantage of this and deny paramedics their rightfully-earned wages.
It is important to define the difference between an “emergency medical technician” (also known as an EMT) and a paramedic. They are essentially the same thing, though paramedics generally have a greater skill set and have been working in the emergency services sector for longer. For the purposes of this article, “paramedic” will be used to apply to both positions.
The United States Department of Labor states that there are 18,110 paramedics in California alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they make an average of $16.05 an hour. This is approximately forty percent (40%) less than the average pay for all employees across the country. That means that many paramedics rely on their overtime rates to help them earn a living wage; this makes the failure of certain employers to pay these premium rates doubly serious for many paramedics.
California Labor Code, Section 511 LC allows for employers to implement alternative schedules, meaning paramedics have highly unusual shift structures. They may work nine (9), ten (10), twelve (12), or even twenty-four (24) hour shifts. While they work these long shifts, there are periods of downtime when they are simply on-call. There may be other work duties, such as administrative paperwork or equipment maintenance, but by and large, they are waiting for the next emergency. They must still be paid for these periods of being on-call.
For paramedics servicing rural areas, or who are part of a firefighting department, twenty-four (24) hour shifts are particularly common. There has also been a growing trend to use what is known as the 48/96 system or the “Kelly Schedule”. This means that they work forty-eight (48) hours with ninety-six (96) hours off. Most paramedics would be entitled to eight (8) hours of overtime under this scheduling system.
Federal and California Overtime Laws
Overtime is a kind of premium rate that is legally required to be paid to all “non-exempt employees”. Because it is above the regular rate of pay, it increases payroll expenses for any employer and is typically avoided. For paramedics, however, their shift structure is substantially different than other industries. This is because medical emergencies can happen at any time of day or night and paramedics must always be prepared for this.
Dishonest or unscrupulous employers will try and avoid paying overtime in a variety of ways, including misclassifying their employees as “exempt” as well as implicitly or explicitly requiring employees to perform their work “off the clock”. This is a clear violation of both federal and state overtime laws.
Overtime pay is delineated in federal law under the Fair Labor Standards Act (commonly known as the FLSA) and in state law under California Labor Code, Section 510 LC. All overtime pay is predicated on two fundamental concepts: that one (1) workday has eight (8) hours and that one (1) workweek has forty (40) hours. In fact, all pay rates are predicated on these concepts, but overtime is especially relevant in most unpaid wages cases for paramedics.
The FLSA clearly states that any amount of work that is performed in excess of these periods of time, eight (8) hours in a day or forty (40) hours in a week, entitles the employee in question to a pay rate that is one and a half (1.5) times their regular rate of pay. This is also known as “time and a half”.
California law, specifically the Labor Code, Section 510 LC, also guarantees employees a “double time” premium rate for certain amounts of overtime hours. Double time kicks in if an employee performs any amount of work in excess of twelve (12) hours in one (1) workday or eight (8) hours on the seventh (7th) consecutive day in one (1) workweek.
Exemptions from Overtime Laws
The FLSA applies to any companies that earn over five-hundred thousand dollars ($500,000) a year and that are involved in “interstate commerce”. Most emergency services companies that employ paramedics meet these two criteria, meaning that they must follow the FLSA rules about what employees are exempt from overtime rates.
The FLSA clearly states that exempt employees must earn a salary that is at least four hundred fifty-five dollars ($455) a week, or twenty-three thousand and six hundred sixty dollars ($23,660) a year. They also must have a job that is primarily professional, executive, or administrative in nature (this is generally known as “white collar” work). This generally means that they must the ability to supervise other professionals, an independent decision-making process, and various creative capacities.
California Labor Code, Section 515 LC also delineates some exemptions to overtime laws. As with all wage and hour provisions, this state law builds on the foundation that the FLSA lays down. Section 515 LC states that employees who direct the work of two (2) or more employees as well as have the authority to hire or fire other employees are considered exempt.
Furthermore, it also states that exempt employees must regularly exercise “discretion” and “independent judgment”. This essentially means that exempt employees operate independently and decide on their own how best to execute the particulars of their job. On the extreme end of the spectrum, these are known as “independent contractors” (who are always exempt).
Employers may try and claim that an employee is exempt to try and avoid paying them overtime rates or even to try and violate minimum wage laws. This is in clear violation of both the FLSA and Section 515 LC, and as such the employee in question may have a strong unpaid wages case.
Paramedics and Overtime
Because there is a great deal of confusion over this concept, it must be clearly stated that paramedics are entitled to overtime. Unfortunately, many companies use a variety of unsavory means to short paramedics out of their rightfully-earned overtime wages.
The FLSA has some very specific exemptions that narrowly apply to certified first responders, firefighting personnel, and other emergency workers. Essentially, the FLSA may define these various employees as “fire protection personnel” if they are employed by a fire department in any jurisdiction, have received fire suppression training, are legally permitted to suppress fires, or play a major role in controlling, preventing, and/or extinguishing fires. The FLSA declares these fire protection personnel as exempt from overtime.
Most paramedics do not meet these criteria and are therefore still considered non-exempt employees. This means that they must be paid overtime if they work in excess of forty (40) hours in a week.
However, in some jurisdictions, particularly rural ones, paramedics and fire protection personnel are one and the same and are employed by the government (not a private company). In these situations, Section 7(k) of the FLSA applies. This states that emergency personnel may receive premium overtime rates if they work more than two hundred twelve (212) hours in twenty-eight (28) days. If the work period in question is shorter than the twenty-eight (28) days, then the government employer is allowed to prorate the number of work hours depending on the work period and its length. This means that a government-employed paramedic/firefighter would have to work fifty-three (53) hours in seven (7) days before getting overtime.
It is important to note that Section 7(k) only applies to paramedics who are also firefighters and who are employed by a government agency. This agency may be federal, state, county, or municipal. In all other situations, paramedics are paid overtime just like in other sectors. There may be some variation in the length of their shifts on a day-by-day basis, but work in excess of forty (40) hours in a week is subject to time and a half. In some situations, it is possible that double time (under the California Labor Code) would also apply.
It is always best to consult with a labor attorney to ensure that you are being fairly compensated and that you are not being shorted on your wages.
Collective Bargaining Exemption from Overtime
In addition to the FLSA and the California Labor Code, the California Industrial Welfare Commission (commonly called the IWC) also regulates wages, hours, and working conditions. They issue “wage orders” that act as binding laws that all industries must follow.
Paramedics are subject to Wage Order #4, Section 3(I), last updated in the year 2002. This essentially states that certain paramedics are exempt from overtime if they are part of a union and/or collective bargaining agreement. This collective bargaining agreement must meet certain conditions in order for Wage Order #4 overtime exemptions to apply.
For example, the agreement must explicitly delineate the conditions, hours, and wages for all employees. It must also have explicitly delineated overtime provisions for any hours worked in excess of regular hours. Finally, the pay for these collective employees must be at least thirty percent (30%) more than the California minimum wage.
If you are a paramedic who is part of a collective bargaining agreement which meets these various requirements, you are very likely exempt from California’s overtime rules. However, federal overtime laws still apply. Consult with a labor attorney to determine if this applies to you, as they are specifically trained to handle and analyze complex cases like these.
Recent Lawsuits for Unpaid Overtime
There have been a variety of investigations and lawsuits throughout the emergency services sector regarding unpaid overtime to paramedics. All across the board, employees have complained that their unusual work hours have been used against them by employers who have claimed that they are not entitled to overtime. Employers will frequently claim that they must reach forty-two (42) hours in one (1) week or ninety-six (96) hours in two (2) weeks in order for premium rates to kick in. This is not legal, and any hours above forty (40) in one (1) week require the time and a half overtime premium.
There have also been several lawsuits alleging that employers have shorted paramedics who worked long shifts. The basis of these shorted wages was that the employers claimed that the paramedics did not work the full twenty-four (24) hours so they only paid them for twenty (20) hours. However, the paramedics were on-call and on-site the entire time, meaning that they worked the entire twenty-four (24) hour period. The courts ruled in their favor and awarded them their unpaid wages.
Furthermore, in June of 2018, the city of San Diego had to pay four hundred and forty-two thousand dollars ($442,000) in unpaid overtime wages to seven (7) helicopter medics as part of an unpaid wages lawsuit. The city invoked Section 7(k) of the FLSA, claiming that the helicopter medics were fire suppression personnel and were therefore entitled to different overtime provisions. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this and stated that these helicopter medics were like all other paramedics and therefore entitled to general FLSA overtime provisions.
There was also a lawsuit in 2015 that awarded three million seven hundred thousand dollars ($3.7 million) in unpaid overtime wages to over seven hundred (700) paramedics. These paramedics were municipal employees, but the state courts made a similar determination to the city of San Diego judgment by claiming that Section 7(k) did not apply in this case.
As you can see, a frequent tactic to short paramedics is to invoke this section of the FLSA. However, there have been recent court cases that have set strong precedents for reconsidering how this law is applied. It appears that employers have been applying it too broadly and that the courts are now interpreting labor laws more in favor of the employees rather than the employers.
If you believe that your employer has denied you wages, overtime or otherwise, then you must contact a labor attorney as soon as possible. They can review your case and advise you on how best to go about recovering said unpaid wages.
What Are Some Other Forms of Wage Theft?
Not properly paying wages is a violation of wage and hour laws; it is a violation of an employee’s fundamental labor rights. In other words, wage and hour laws specify that wages are a right that must be respected by all employers. Failure to provide these wages is known as “wage theft”.
Not paying overtime is not the only form of wage theft that may apply to paramedics. Law firms who specialize in these kinds of cases are familiar with all kinds of dishonest dealings that employers will use to short their employees. These may include:
- Not paying state and/or federal minimum wage rates
- Claiming that the employee is “exempt” from overtime pay and/or benefits
- Not providing the employee compulsory breaks and/or meals
- Requiring that the employee work “off the clock”
- Not paying bonuses and/or commissions
- Not paying for paid time off (PTO)
- Not paying in a timely manner
Note that benefits and compulsory breaks also count as wages in a broad sense. If an employer is attempting to short you on these legally-mandated obligations, you likely have a strong unpaid wages case. Furthermore, if there is any written correspondence (texts, emails, et cetera) that indicate that your employer is requiring you to work off the clock, then you absolutely must save it and share it with your labor attorney. They can use these written materials to build a strong case for you.
It is also crucial that paramedics be given their legally-mandated breaks and meals. Because of the high-stress, intense nature of the job, any mistakes made may result in a person being further injured or even succumbing to their injuries. Paramedics must be alert, focused, and always ready to respond. Denying them their fundamental labor rights may have grave consequences.
Furthermore, denial of benefits to paramedics is particularly problematic as they face greater mental health challenges than most industries. Paramedics are five (5) times more likely to commit suicide, likely due to high exposure to traumatic scenes as well as irregular work hours that can eventually take a toll. A high percentage of paramedics also have post-traumatic stress disorder (commonly known as PTSD) as well as anxiety or depression. They are also exposed to far more infectious diseases and pathogens.
Proper treatment of these conditions requires medical coverage; failure to treat them may result in employees who are fundamentally incapable of properly executing their professional duties. In the emergency services sector, that can directly result in injury and/or death.
How You Can Recover Your Unpaid Wages
Under the California Labor Code, Section 1194 LC, an aggrieved employee has the right to recover unpaid wages in the form of back pay. There are various avenues you may take to recover this back pay, including filing a federal complaint, a state complaint, or a lawsuit (in state or federal court). All of these should be done with a labor attorney to guide you through the process and help you navigate the various wage and hour laws, and exemptions therein, that may apply to your case.
The federal regulatory body that deals with wage violations is the United States Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division (commonly referred to as the WHD). They have district offices all over the country (including Los Angeles). Once you lodge a formal complaint with them, they will initiate an investigation that can effectively be bolstered by any paperwork or evidence that you may provide. This includes pay stubs and/or records of hours worked as well as any written correspondence with your employer.
If the WHD rules in your favor, they will then supervise your employer’s reimbursement of your unpaid wages. It is also common for a lawsuit to be filed on your behalf by the Labor Commissioner; this potentially entitles you to liquidated damages, back pay, and legal fees. They may also set substantial fines against your employer as a corrective to ensure that they do not violate the FLSA again.
You may also file a complaint with the state of California Labor Commissioner. They also have a district office in Los Angeles that can undertake an investigation into your employer’s violation of the state Labor Code. You will be assigned a deputy who can work with your labor attorney to help you get your back pay and any other damages. You will likely be offered a settlement first, with your deputy and attorney present, that you may choose to accept or reject.
If you reject the settlement, then your claim proceeds to a state hearing with the Labor Commissioner. Again, you will have your deputy and labor attorney present to help you present your case to the commissioner. They will make a ruling and hand down an “Order, Decision, or Award” (also referred to as an ODA). You and your employer both have fifteen (15) days to appeal the ruling; if neither of you does, then the ODA goes into effect and you may receive your compensation.
Filing a lawsuit must be done by your labor attorney and they can help you decide whether to pursue in federal court (a violation of FLSA) or in state court (a violation of California Labor Code). You should retain representation that has extensive experience and knowledge in these cases, ensuring that you will receive the very best legal counsel.
Find A Labor Attorney Near Me
It is unfortunate how commonly paramedics are cheated out of their wages. This usually takes the form of overtime rates, though there are other forms of wage theft that may apply. If you feel like you are being denied your lawfully earned wages in the state of California, then Stop Unpaid Wages is here to fight for you. We can offer you a complimentary consultation at 424-781-8411.