WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is expected to decide Monday whether to hear Anne Arundel County’s appeal of a ruling that forced the county to pay overtime to its emergency medical technicians.
Two lower courts have ordered the county to pay its paramedics more than $2 million in lost overtime, interest and attorney’s fees.
But local government officials said last week that potentially much more is at stake if the lower court rulings are allowed to stand. Many counties across the country use the same “cross-training” between firefighters and paramedics that is at issue in the Anne Arundel County case.
“If this case is allowed to stand, the effects on counties could be pretty serious,” said Michael Sanderson, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties.
But an attorney for the paramedics said the actual cost of the ruling would be much smaller, smaller still when compared to the “major havoc” governments could inflict on their workers.
The case began in August 1990, when 74 county paramedics sued over their classification as firefighters. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires time-and-a-half to be paid after 40 hours of work, but firefighters do not start earning overtime until they have worked 53 hours in one week.
Congress enacted the exception because firefighters typically work cycles of 24-hour shifts that include long waiting periods.
The Anne Arundel paramedics challenged their classification as firefighters, since they spent more time assisting in medical emergencies than actually fighting fires.
“Most of them have rarely, if ever, picked up a fire hose,” said F.J. Collins, attorney for the paramedics. “They were hired with the specific goal of being put in the emergency medical division.”
The county defended the practice in court documents, saying it has to cross-train fire and rescue personnel to do both types of jobs in order to provide efficient emergency services over the 416-square-mile county.
Sanderson said the line between the two categories often “becomes a little blurred.”
In August 1995, the U.S. District Court in Baltimore awarded the paramedics over $2 million in lost overtime pay, interest and attorney’s fees. By that time, 67 additional paramedics had joined the case.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond agreed with the lower court, ruling that emergency medical technicians cannot be considered firefighters and must be paid overtime after a 40-hour week.
That Feb. 18 ruling by the appellate court sparked the county’s petition to the Supreme Court.
The county argues that the high court should hear the case because the overtime exemption “has been repeatedly characterized as `ambiguous’ by the courts” and that circuit courts are “deeply divided” on the issue.
“The 4th Circuit’s decision conflicts with the decisions of other courts of appeals and heightens the confusion surrounding the … exemption,” the county said in its petition. “The case presents an opportunity for the [Supreme] Court to clarify the confusion.”
The county also argues that the 4th Circuit decision infringes on the Constitution.
“Under our constitutional scheme, the provision of public safety emergency services to citizens within the borders of the county should remain subject to local control,” court papers stated.
County attorneys could not be reached to comment on the case Friday.
Collins said: “It’s just simply not true that this [case] violates the Constitution. It just holds local government to the same standards private industry is held to.”
He said that the long-term cost to the county would be “minuscule, if that.” Collins estimated that the county would have to pay an additional $200,000 to $300,000 a year, which he said is “really a small number in the large scheme of things.”
The only impact the case will have is to put a little more money in the pockets of paramedics who work “exhausting” hours, he said.