ANNAPOLIS – A federal appeals court has ruled that Anne Arundel County must pay overtime to its paramedics, a decision that local government officials said could have a “staggering” impact on their budgets.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case brought by 143 Anne Arundel paramedics that they cannot be classified as firefighters. That classification would have exempted them from federal laws requiring overtime after a 40- hour work week.
The court awarded the paramedics lost overtime pay, interest on the payments dating back to 1988 and attorney’s fees.
Anne Arundel County spokeswoman Lisa Ritter said the decision will cost the county “several million,” but officials have not calculated the final cost.
She said she expects the county to appeal the decision, which was handed down Feb. 18.
The opinion, as it stands, has the potential to affect many more local governments, said an official with the Maryland Association of Counties.
“This decision has substantial impacts on any local government that has a combined fire and medical effort,” said Michael Sanderson, legislative director for MACO.
Those concerns were echoed by an official with the National Association of Counties.
“As EMT (emergency medical technician) workers win these cases the cost to local governments are staggering,” said Neil Bomberg, associate legislative director for NACO.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires overtime pay for hourly employees who work more than 40 hours in a week. But police and firefighters are exempt from that limit, getting overtime only after they have worked 53 hours in a week.
Anne Arundel County argued in court that paramedics are “an integral part” of the department’s fire protection activities and that firefighters and paramedics are “in a unified command structure … share union representation with firefighters, work at the same facilities and towards a common goal.”
But the paramedics challenged their classification as “fire protection employees” since they seldom engage in fire fighting.
They argued that their jobs consist of preparing for medical emergencies, maintaining ambulances, transporting patients to hospitals, administering first aid and other medical services. Even though they are trained in fire fighting, they are usually prohibited from doing so because they need to keep clean for their medical chores, they said.
“They rarely, if ever, pick up a fire hose,” said F.J. Collins, an attorney for the paramedics.
The appeals court agreed that the paramedics are not firefighters, ruling that the bulk of a paramedic’s job involves medical care and not “fire protection activities.”
But the court agreed with county officials that paramedics with the rank of captain or lieutenant are classified managers and, thus, not eligible for overtime. Twenty-three captains and lieutenants were involved in the case.
County officials do not yet know if all paramedics or if just those involved in the case will receive back pay, Ritter said.
She also said fire departments across the nation whose paramedics are treated as firefighters, will watch to see what the decision will mean for them, she said.
“I think there’s the potential for it to have nationwide applicability,” Ritter said. “It’s a trend others will be watching.”
The appeals court rejected the county’s claim that the wage and hour standards were an unconstitutional intrusion by the federal government on the rights of local governments.
Bomberg said NACO hopes to deal with the issue by rewriting the wage and hour standards to lump paramedics in with police and firefighters.