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EMS workers file suit over pay

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Employees say they’re owed money for overtime

By Chris Sardelli

More than 50 current and past Lancaster County Emergency Medical Services workers are suing the county for overtime pay they say they’re owed.
In a suit filed in federal district court last month, EMS workers claim the county violated the national Fair Labor Standards Act. The class-action suit claims the county owes EMS employees money for years of unpaid overtime compensation.
David Rothstein, an employment and labor law attorney with Greenville-based Rothstein Law Firm, is representing the EMS workers who filed the suit. As of Wednesday, he said 51 people had joined the suit.
“Most of the workers are still employed with EMS, though between six and eight people who have filed with the suit are retired or no longer employed,” Rothstein said. “There are between 60 and 65 current employees at EMS, so we are getting close to full participation.”
Rothstein said this is an opt-in suit, meaning if a worker wants to be included, they have to file a consent form with the court to be included in the suit.
The suit stems from problems several EMS workers say they’ve had in recent years.
Rothstein said most EMS employees work a full 24-hour shift at least once a week.
During those 24 hours, he said employees are required to have an eight-hour designated sleep time. If sleep is interrupted for work purposes, then they should be paid for the time they end up working, he said.
Rothstein said if employees don’t receive at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep, they should receive payment for a full 24 hours of work.
“EMS employees were regularly required to fill out reports and clean their ambulances during the sleep time,” Rothstein said. “We contend they should be paid for the full 24-hour period also because the sleep period was usually interrupted by emergency calls.”
He said EMS workers contend they had to work from 8 a.m. on one day to 8:15 a.m. of the next morning, but were never paid for the extra 15-minute period.  
Another problem is the classification the county uses to pay EMS workers, Rothstein said.
Under federal law, employees who work more than 40 hours per week are eligible to receive overtime compensation.
But Rothstein said the county has instead been paying EMS workers using a firefighter exemption classification, which means those employees must work 53 hours per week before getting paid overtime.
“We think the county has been improperly using the firefighter exemption,” Rothstein said. “The other problem is that under the firefighter exemption, the county can combine up to four work weeks and take an average.”
Rothstein said averaging work weeks is misleading, because EMS employees could end up working overtime in one week and less hours in another, which would lead to no overtime compensation.  
County response
When asked about the suit, County Administrator Steve Willis refused to comment. He referred all questions to the county’s labor and employment attorney, Dirk Aydlette of Columbia-based Gignilliat, Savitz & Bettis law firm.
Aydlette said the suit comes after Lancaster County recently revised its pay plan for employees.
“The plaintiffs preferred the old plan as being more generous,” Aydlette said. “We believe that is why they went to see Mr. Rothstein – to try to return to the old plan. The irony is that it’s the old plan that they now claim violated the law.”
Aydlette said his firm has reviewed the employees’ time records for the last three years, which is the time frame covered by the suit.
“I think they’re going to find that, due to setoffs where they were paid more than they should have been, we’re talking about little or no money,” Aydlette said. “In fact, they will find that there are time periods for which some of them owe the county money.”
The county has until mid-December to formally answer the suit.
Rothstein said he doesn’t have final dollar amounts for what EMS workers are asking from the county, especially since more employees may join the lawsuit.

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli  at csardelli@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 416-8416