WASHINGTON – Counties face a “major financial impact” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear a case on how Anne Arundel County pays its paramedics, said local government associations.
But firefighters union officials and the attorney for the Anne Arundel paramedics said that the case’s impact will not be as severe as county authorities claim.
F.J. Collins, the attorney, said the counties’ “floodgate argument” is not correct, because the case will not apply in every county and it will only affect a small job class.
The high court Monday declined without comment to hear an appeal of a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that paramedics must be paid overtime after working 40 hours in one week.
Anne Arundel County had classified its paramedics as firefighters, who do not have to be paid overtime until they work 53 hours in a week.
The 4th Circuit in February based its ruling on the fact that paramedics, even though they may be trained in firefighting, spend more time on medical emergencies than fighting fires. It ordered the county to pay more than $2 million in back pay, interest and attorney’s fees.
Michael Sanderson, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties, said the ruling could make it very difficult for counties to implement such “cross- training” of paramedics and firefighters.
“Potentially, this could have both management and funding impacts across the country,” Sanderson said.
But Kevin O’Connor, president of the Maryland State and D.C. Professional Firefighters Association, said the Anne Arundel case will have a broad impact only if counties use cross-trained firefighters mainly as paramedics.
Anne Arundel County was supported by 21 states and 10 national organizations, including the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the National Governors Association and the U.S. Council of Mayors.
The director of research for the National Association of Counties sighed dramatically when she heard that the high court refused to hear the case.
“Well, we sort of expected that,” said Jacqueline Byers. While no one has estimated exactly how much the ruling will affect local governments, she said it will have a “major financial impact.”
She said the case points up the problems that can come with cross-training of firefighters and emergency medical technicians. The practice has grown in the past 20 years because it is the “most efficient use of resources and money,” Byers said.
The Anne Arundel County fire department trains its firefighters to perform rescue and emergency medical services and vice versa.
In August 1990, 74 Anne Arundel County cross-trained paramedics sued over their classification as firefighters, saying they spent more time on medical emergencies than actually fighting fires.
Five years later, 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.
Baltimore County paramedics filed a similar lawsuit in 1996 but settled out of court, Collins said.
The 4th Circuit upheld the district court ruling in the Anne Arundel case in February. The county asked the Supreme Court to step in, saying that other circuit courts had issued different rulings on the question, but the high court Monday refused to take up the case.
Collins said Anne Arundel County officials have known for a long time that they might have to pay overtime to the paramedics, but they have “refused to deal with it.”
“The handwriting has been on the wall … and they just haven’t dealt with the problem,” Collins said.