EMS reconsiders entry-level pay
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
INVERNESS -- It was 2 p.m. on a Thursday, and paramedic Jim Aikman decided to walk out of the busiest ambulance station in the county.
He felt cheated, his resignation letter explained the following day, because he was not earning as much as he originally thought he would.
Aikman started in August at the pay grade for someone with more than 12 years of experience. He thought the raise package approved for ambulance workers last fall would mean a wage increase for him, but as a newcomer he would have to wait another year.
"I was told that in October I would be making a different rate than I am currently making, which was the major factor for changing jobs," Aikman wrote in his Jan. 11 resignation letter. "In fact, I am now making less with less benefits than the job I left."
"This type of deception is clearly one of poor business and ethics," he wrote.
Nature Coast EMS officials scrambled that Thursday. Deputy chief Jim Goodworth darted over to the Inverness ambulance station to cover Aikman's shift. All told, the ambulance was out of service for about 15 minutes, executive director Teresa Gorentz said.
After the dust settled, it was Gorentz who felt deceived. She had hired a paramedic with 20 years of experience, a strong resume and glowing recommendations, only to see him abandon his station after spending less than six months on the job -- a first for the system.
It got her thinking: Why does the pay scale immediately reward experienced hires from other systems instead of the workers who have proven themselves over the long haul at Nature Coast EMS?
Because wages are based on years of experience -- at Nature Coast EMS or elsewhere -- an experienced new hire can walk in and immediately make more than a less-experienced worker who has been at Nature Coast EMS since Day 1.
Now Gorentz is considering a plan that would bring in all new hires at entry-level pay, regardless of their years of experience. If the newcomer earned a good evaluation score after a certain trial period -- perhaps three, six or 12 months -- Nature Coast EMS would then bump that employee up to the wage that corresponds to his or her years of experience.
"I think my recruitment mentality has changed," Gorentz said last week. "The people that are here are the ones keeping the system up and running, not the people I'm trying to hire.
"Pay definitely needs to be based on performance, and the employees need to be involved in the process," she added. "An employee suggested we look at these people we hired who left after a short period of time. (Those new hires) may have had more years of experience, but they were not providing the same quality of service as (the veteran Nature Coast workers)."
Employees have given the idea mixed reviews. Some of the field crews like the idea that new hires would have to prove themselves, Gorentz said. Those in management positions, however, fear that experienced paramedics will not come to Nature Coast EMS if they are told they will have to start at the bottom, at least for the first few months, she said.
But Gorentz thinks she needs to do something.
Nature Coast EMS, the nonprofit corporation the county created to run the ambulance service in October 2000 when Florida Regional EMS pulled out, still has a revolving door among its ranks.
During its first year, the system saw about a third of its crews leave, often for better paying jobs at neighboring systems. Since last October, Nature Coast has lost three more EMTs, three full-time paramedics and a part-time medic.
Gorentz has made a couple of new hires but said the system is still short two paramedics -- and that means other medics sometimes work a 48-hour double shift instead of the regular 24-hour shift to make sure the ambulances are ready to roll.
The raises approved last fall brought Nature Coast's entry-level pay on par with Lake/Sumter EMS, so Gorentz said pay alone is not the issue. Some of the employees who left simply found what they felt were better jobs.
One paramedic, who had been at Nature Coast two months, took a closer job at Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala, where the ambulance shifts are only 12 hours and the pay is higher.
Two others fulfilled their dreams to become firefighters and took jobs with fire/rescue services in Hernando and Pasco counties, which pay better because of the additional skills required. Another EMT found a job with better hours at Florida Power.
A couple of others, including Aikman, left disgruntled after having disputes with management.
A group of employees told the Nature Coast EMS board of directors in November that there was talk in the ranks about organizing a union. They pointed to low employee morale, confusion about changing policies and poor communication between management and the crews.
Gorentz said she is trying to do everything -- especially the little things, like buying new boots for workers who need them -- to keep her veterans happy. She also wants to make sure her new hires are a good fit for the system.
Along with revisiting the system's starting pay policies, Gorentz will require job applicants to ride for one day with an ambulance crew. The applicants can see the system first-hand and decide if it's right for them, and the crew members can help judge whether the applicant would fit in at Nature Coast, she said.
"I have to listen to what the employees are saying," Gorentz said.
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