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COVID-19’s Impact on EMS Jobs

The fact that COVID-19 has devastated EMS revenues seems trivial compared to the lives it’s claimed. But for the EMTs and paramedics who tend to the sick, drastically slashed revenues matter—this is the money that pays for their jobs.

In recent weeks the mainstream media has speculated about possible EMS layoffs in New York City due to pandemic-reduced revenues. So far it has been impossible to accurately predict how such layoffs could affect the industry as a whole, or if they will even occur. But there’s no doubt COVID-19 is affecting employment situations. Here’s what a number of sources have to report.

Union Seeing Job Losses

With more than 24,000 members in the U.S. EMS sector (both public and private), EMS Workers United (part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, aka AFSCME) has been keeping a close eye on the industry’s job prospects and revenue problems.

“As of right now, our members in 4911 (California) that worked for AMR were laid off as EMS professionals, but AFSCME Local 4911 leadership was able to help get them reassigned as COVID-19 testers at mobile testing sites,” says Namita Waghray, the union’s communications associate. “There has been talk in New York City of nearly 400 potentially being laid off, but it is not official. Union members are working diligently with the city to avoid any layoffs or furloughs.

“The same is true for our private-sector EMS professionals,” she says. “There have been discussions—and our union members in California, Arizona, and New Mexico are working with their EMS providers to avoid layoffs or furloughs.”

AAA Seeing Losses as Well

The American Ambulance Association (AAA) is the trade association that represents a majority of private ambulance providers in the United States. According to Rob Lawrence, the AAA’s communications chair, their members’ employees have experienced “some degree of furloughs and layoffs” due to pandemic-reduced revenues. The good news is that this primarily occurred due to falling call volumes during the initial shutdown in March and April, which is now easing.

Montgomery County Holding Steady

According to the Washington Post, “Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction…(faces) projected loss of up to $600 million caused by stringent business shutdowns.” As of May 2020, county councilors approved a $5.9 billion budget aimed at maintaining continuity of operations with no service cuts. At the same time, they “voted 7 to 2 to reject union-negotiated contracts that included salary increases for police, firefighters, and other county employees,” the Post reported. “‘This is not about what our employees deserve. This is about what our county can afford,’ Council President Sidney Katz said during a recent council meeting.”

“Montgomery County, like most local and state governments, is facing decreases in tax revenue,” says Alan Butsch, assistant chief for emergency medical and integrated healthcare services with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. “The effect on our agency remains to be seen. There has been zero discussion of layoffs, and we are already having to hire overtime every day to fulfill service needs. The County Council is debating service-level cuts across all county agencies, but there is no decision yet.”

Georgia Holding Steady, Offering Jobs

COVID-19 is not threatening EMS jobs in Georgia. If anything, there are jobs seeking employees right now.

That’s the word from Conrad Kearns. He is secretary of the Georgia Ambulance Providers Association, a statewide industry advocacy association.

“There will be no loss of jobs here (due to COVID-19), nor do I know of any place considering it other than New York City,” Kearns says. “Actually, agencies in Georgia are looking for staff as quarantined employees are creating gaps in our schedules. Georgia is now allowing out-of-state licensed EMTs and medics to temporarily practice in our state. So if the New York City EMTs and paramedics get laid off and want to come here temporarily, we will certainly consider hiring them during the pandemic.”

GMR Fighting to Keep Jobs

As the nation’s largest provider of emergency air and ground transport services, Global Medical Response (GMR) has been feeling the pandemic pinch. “At the beginning of the lockdown, 9-1-1 call volume drastically decreased, which placed significant financial strain on our EMS systems,” says GMR public information officer Jason Sorrick. “Although GMR received some assistance under the CARES Act, we are too large to qualify for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans, and our additional requests for relief have yet to be granted even though federal funds are available.”

Finances haven’t improved much since. “Although calls for service have stabilized in some parts of the country, the decrease in demand combined with continued utilization of our services for nontransport care and the additional costs of operating under the COVID-19 pandemic, such as increased PPE use, child care subsidies, and the expense of covering salaries of quarantined personnel, continues to weigh heavily on our operations,” Sorrick says.

Despite these factors, GMR has done its best to maintain staffing levels. “Although we did cut some part-time shifts at the beginning of the pandemic, we had to maintain staffing to address potential hotspots and the likelihood volume would return,” says Sorrick. “If we furloughed large numbers of employees, we would be caught short on our ability to respond to hotspots or large disaster deployments.”

The company has pivoted to find other revenue sources during COVID-19. “We worked with our workforce and some of our largest unions, AFSCME and the Teamsters, to reassign team members to our FEMA deployments, COVID-19 testing sites, senior care facilities, and state-level disaster response,” Sorrick explains. This includes unloading cruise ships, managing the ambulance response for FEMA in New York and New Jersey and following hurricanes, and the air and ground ambulance response in Imperial County, Calif., to address hotspots near the border.

GMR has also staffed senior care facilities, sent multiple strike teams to wildfire disasters, and provided testing services for both government and private companies. “We even had crews become certified in forklift operation so they could help set up temporary hospitals and help in PPE and ventilator distribution,” Sorrick says.

Consensus: A Belief in Relief

With the pandemic still raging across America, EMS Workers United is not optimistic about revenues recovering soon. This is why the union is lobbying Washington to make up these shortfalls.

“We believe the federal government needs to provide necessary funding to state and local government,” Waghray says. “It’s really the only solution to the problem right now.” Unfortunately, legislative efforts to win such relief in Congress “currently lie dormant in the Senate, with no solution in sight.”

This is a policy position shared by both unions and EMS providers alike.

“EMS is a vital public service that must be properly funded and supported in order to save lives,” says Nick Nudell, president of the American Paramedic Association. “Everybody’s acting with one voice to get this level of funding,” agrees Lawrence.

To get past this, “We’ve got to keep EMS in the public eye and in the eyes of those elected officials when they come to the vote,” Lawrence adds. “We don’t want to be underfunded to the point that EMS becomes unaffordable in rural and other low-volume areas. That would be a national tragedy.”

James Careless is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to EMS World.

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