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September 04, 2008
Firefighter or Paramedic? For Pay, It Matters
Some 300 Philadelphia paramedics sued for full overtime pay, claiming that they, unlike the firefighters with whom they usually work, are not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Theirs was the fourth notable class-action suit on this issue.

What happened. As in the other three suits, the paramedics are employed by a municipal fire department. Typically, they are then deployed to fire scenes with firefighters and an incident commander. But in some cases, that's where the similarity ends: Firefighters "are responsible" for dousing a blaze, while paramedics are responsible for something else. In this case, paramedics said, their job descriptions called for them to provide "medical assistance [to fire victims] with emphasis on the stabilization of patients to permit safe transport to a full-service medical facility."

The phrase "are responsible"--for fighting fires--is important to the issue, because that's the phrase used in the law, which exempts from FLSA employees who were hired and trained for fire suppression. In this case, the paramedics were paid extra for hours over 40 that they worked in a week, but not at the full time-and-a-half rate. A federal district court judge ruled for the city, reasoning that the paramedics had training in firefighting and should be exempt. They appealed to the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

What the court said. Appellate judges reviewed rulings made by the 9th Circuit (AK, AZ, CA, HI, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA), finding that even fully cross-trained paramedics should not be exempt, and by the 5th Circuit (LA, MS, TX), finding that firefighters are exempt despite spending 20 percent of their time performing nonexempt duties. Finally, the 11th Circuit (AL, FL, GA) ruled that firefighter/paramedics certified in and responsible for performing both kinds of duties are exempt. Since the Philadelphia paramedics' firefighting training is very limited, they ride to fire scenes in ambulances rather than fire trucks, and their job descriptions do not include fire suppression, they must be paid overtime. Lawrence et al. v. City of Philadelphia, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, No. 06-4564 (2008).

Point to remember: One judge wrote, "Congress could have chosen to make all paramedics subject to the exemption [for firefighters], but it did not." Fire departments around the country can avoid huge backpay damages in one of two ways: Classify paramedics as nonexempt from the start, or fully train them as firefighters and add that responsibility to their job descriptions.

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