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County may have to shell out back pay

Citrus County may be forced to pay its emergency medical workers $250,000 in back overtime wages because of a recent federal court ruling, Assistant County Attorney Richard Wesch said Wednesday.

The ruling also is forcing the county to adjust its pay practices for paramedics to come into compliance.

Officials have proposed an unusual arrangement whereby paramedics would be required to be at a station but would not be paid for six hours of their 24-hour shift if they are able to get "substantially uninterrupted" sleep during those six hours.

"People will be at a station for 24 hours and (may) receive pay for only 18," Wesch said.

Over the course of a month, the plan could result in up to 60 fewer working hours for each paramedic.

But if the 40 employees affected by the plan do not agree to it, Wesch said the county has one other, more expensive option: convert the employees to a conventional 8-hour-a-day shift.

To staff the ambulances around the clock, Wesch said, the county would have to pay about $500,000 a year in overtime or hire 13 more workers.

"The option we're going with, we think, meets employees' interests and is the lowest cost for the county other than privatization," Wesch said.

He said the federal Fair Labor Standards Act specifically allows the no-pay-for-sleep arrangement.

In January, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that emergency medical workers are not exempt from fair labor provisions that require overtime to be paid for any hours worked in a week greater than 40.

Citrus County, by contrast, has only been paying paramedics an overtime premium if an employee works more than 212 hours per month.

Even though the federal ruling was not handed down until January, federal Department of Labor officials have told Wesch that the county should pay back wages for two years, which could come to $250,000.

Wesch agrees that some back pay is owed _ but only back to January, which would cost the county between $35,000 and $50,000.

"There was sufficient uncertainty in the interpretation of the law that to go back two years is fundamentally unfair to Citrus County," he said, noting that lower courts had upheld paramedic pay arrangements like used in Citrus County.

Wesch said he is hoping to persuade federal officials in Tampa to adopt his view. If no agreement is reached, the Department of Labor could sue the county to force payment of back wages.

A complaint filed by an anonymous employee stirred the federal government's interest in Citrus EMS pay last year. That prompted the Department of Labor to investigate so it was aware what system Citrus used when the federal court ruling was issued in January.

Steve Lovenguth, director of EMS, said it is difficult to gauge what effect the proposed pay system might have on the division's budget or on the pocketbooks of individual paramedics.

The determining factor will be the amount of calls paramedics are forced to answer.

If during their rest period, they have to go out on a call, "they get paid for the time on the call, and if there are so many calls that their sleep is substantially interrupted, we pay them for the entire time," Wesch said.

"It could almost work to be advantageous to some employees," Lovenguth said. "We have some stations that are extremely busy."

Currently, paramedics are paid the same whether they are assigned to a station with many calls or few, he said.

Overtime also will kick in once an employee has worked 40 hours per week. Since paramedics work 24 hours on and 48 hours off, there still would be a potential for overtime pay at busy stations.

Paramedics, however, have come to expect a certain amount of overtime that was built into their unusual schedules. In a typical month, a paramedic will work 240 hours, with the last 28 hours as overtime.

Under the proposal, however, overtime will not be quite so automatic because of the rest periods. Additionally, paramedics' paid work time could shrink by as much as 60 hours each month, though they will still have to be on call during those hours.

County officials plan to present their proposal to paramedics in a meeting Monday. They hope to begin the new system July 1.