ROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times
In an effort to recruit and retain workers, officials with Seward County EMS came before the county commission Monday to discuss possibly increasing starting wages for department employees and giving raises to those already working.
The item came before the commission two weeks after the commission heard from EMS leaders about a possible new building for the department, and following a somewhat lengthy discussion Monday, commissioners unanimously approved increasing starting wages and giving employees already in place a raise.
EMS Director John Ralston said the need for better pay came about due to recent turnover in the department and workers seeking employment elsewhere because of the current wage situation.
“The issue we’re facing right now is recruitment,” he said. “With recruitment comes retention. Keeping people is one side of that coin. The other side is recruiting new people when people leave. It’s hard to recruit when you’re paying anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 less than everybody else for the same job.”
Those numbers came from a recent study Ralston did regarding pay levels for EMS workers in other Kansas counties.
The counties included in Ralston’s study included those who responded to a recent census from the Kansas Emergency Medical Services Association.
“I pulled out services that are very top heavy on overtime,” he said. “There are two ways to schedule an EMS. One of them is scheduling them with preloading overtime. That would be doing a 48-hour shift with 96 hours off. There’s some services that work the three-team rotation, which means you have a 72-hour work week.”
Ralston said this particular method preloads a department with a significant amount of overtime.
“You’re close to 960 to 1,200 hours of overtime each year,” he said. “We do not do that. Our schedule is a 42-hour work week average. It works a lot better for people.”
Ralston said, though, departments who pay less per hour generally see workers making about $20,000 to $30,000 more than most because of added overtime in their schedules.
To be fair, Ralston said he wanted to look at counties that worked schedules and provided similar services to those of Seward County, and he said the material he used for the study was from a 2020 report.
“They didn’t have one in ’21, and we haven’t had one in ’22 yet,” he said. “I believe they’re going to do one next year.”
Ralston said lack of workers is not merely a local one, but rather a statewide issue.
“There’s only a pool of about 2,900 paramedics in the state of Kansas compared to other places that are struggling to get help like nursing,” he said. “There’s more than 60,000 nurses in the state.”
Ralston said recruiting is difficult, but without comparable wages, the process becomes nearly impossible.
The proposal passed by commissioners Monday increases starting salaries for paramedics to $18 an hour, $16 an hour for advanced EMTs (AEMT) and $15 an hour for basic EMTs.
To prevent wage compression, the remainder of Ralston’s staff will receive a $2 an hour wage increase, with one employee receiving $2.50 extra per hour to get them above the starting wage at their level. Ralston said this will help EMS retain more of its employees.
“If you bring the bottom up, you need to equalize it at the top,” he said. “If you crunch your wages down, you have people starting higher than the staff you have.”
Time wise as it pertains to education, Ralston said there is little difference between paramedics and nurses.
“It takes the same amount of education for a nurse or a paramedic,” he said. “You go to school two years. You come out with an associate’s degree.”
Ralston said on every ambulance call is at least one paramedic.
“That’s to take the advanced skills to the patients – IVs, therapy, medications, defibrillation, innovation – skills the paramedics can provide the others can’t,” he said.
With fewer from older generations still working in the EMS field, the recruiting focus in recent years has turned to younger people, and Ralston said this requires a new approach to hiring.
“These people, they’re looking at hourly wage,” he said. “They’re worried about what they get in their pocket. I know this county has excellent benefit packages, but you can’t recruit on benefits.”
Ralston said the counties he looked at in his study all have benefit packages.
“They have employer-provided insurance at some of them,” he said. “Some of them have partial employee-contributed and partial employer. Dodge City was a little higher than everybody else. They don’t contribute as much to their insurance. They pay a little more in wage. That’s a discussion we’ve had for the last years on the benefit package. Our benefit package is pretty lucrative.”
The $6,000 difference between Seward County’s wages and those of other counties trends upward from new employees to those who have been on the job longer, and Ralston said that difference is enough to make some people leave the county for better pay.
At this time, Seward County EMS has six paramedics, three AEMTs, one full-time EMT and one part-time EMT.
Administrator April Warden said shortages like the current one force directors like Ralston to take runs and be on call rather than focusing on the job of running their department.
“People say John’s not in the office,” she said. “That’s because he’s taking shifts. It takes him and his staff. We do have a director who’s not able to do exactly what he’s supposed to be doing because he’s having to fill in when we have a shortage like what we have now.”
Commissioner Nathan McCaffrey asked how the raises would affect the recently passed budget for the county. Warden said Ralston was asking commissioners to take immediate action Monday.
“As far as the budget, you’re correct,” she said. “You’ve already passed a budget for 2022 we’re working in right now. You do have some money in reserves.”
Warden said the county likewise has some money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency it received in reimbursements from the COVID-19 pandemic, and that funding can be used to help reimburse the county’s general fund.
“We just recently received another $62,000 check off of FEMA reimbursements,” she said. “You do have the means to make those happen.”
Warden said health insurance benefits may not be the same between the counties, but all counties are members of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS), with some part of the Kansas Police and Firemen’s (KP&F) Retirement System. This means when hired, employees do not have an option not to sign up for these programs.
“When we’re hiring these people for EMS, it’s an automatic 7.15 percent that’s coming off of the top of that wage we are offering them,” she said. “As of their hire date, they have no choice but to contribute to that.”
Warden said Seward County now has five generations of employees, and each generation is looking for different options when it comes to recruiting.
“For some, the benefit package is the most important to them,” she said. “That was very apparent to us when we did the employee survey.”
In that survey, a breakdown by generation was made, and Warden outlined the differences between older and younger workers.
“You have those employees who have been here long-term,” she said. “They tell you how important the benefit package is to them, but you have those employees who are just starting out, and they’re looking at that starting wage and how we’re going to be able to recruit people. We still can recruit people on a benefits package because some people realize the importance of that benefits package, but the last three years have been tough on people, this year especially from cost of living. They’re trying to figure out how to make things work for their families in this time of need.”
Ralston said the best recruitment tools for any workplace are its own employees.
“It’s a little easier to sell it when we do something in this manner to get them to help sell it,” he said. “It’s something we thought about for a long time, we struggled with. We will get them. It’s just a matter of time of when. I’m willing to send people to school to get them certified, but that takes time. It’s not an easy fix.”
With other EMS units in the area lacking workers, Ralston said recruiting people becomes even more difficult.
“Meade is starting a full-time service,” he said. “They’ve got eight positions opened up. They’re going to be competing from the same crop we are. Dodge City’s down eight. They’re going to be competing. Garden City’s still down. Ulysses, I think, is full staffed right now. The area is struggling, and it’s not just our area of Kansas.”
Ralston said area EMS departments could look to schools in other parts of the state, but those graduates are turning to urban areas where pay and benefit packages are likely better.
“They just turned out a class in Hutch of 45 paramedics, and all 45 of them went to work in Sedgwick County,” he said.
The money for the raises and increases to starting wages will be taken from the salary line item portion of the county’s Reserve for Claims fund. New starting wages are effective immediately, and the pay raises for current EMS workers will go into effect with the county’s next pay period.