Could new EMT employment policy be scaring away some Cleveland EMS recruits?

Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 9:30 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 3, 2021 at 1:57 AM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - 19 Investigates found a new policy for EMS recruits could be scaring them away before they even start the job.

This comes at a time when Cleveland EMS continues to run understaffed.

Some ambulances have even been out of service at times due to the shortage.

This puts more stress on the people you depend on in an emergency.

The city is working to fix the staffing problem.

But are they being transparent enough about what they expect from new hires?

According to the city, Cleveland EMS is budgeted for 332 members.

Public records show as of mid-August, they are short 33 crews.

19 Investigates found that’s actually up 20 personnel from July, when they were down 53 EMS crews.

But help is on the way with recruits in training.

19 investigates spoke with an EMT who works for a local fire department. She asked we disguise her identity.

“They sent me a letter stating I was hired, I was on for Cleveland now and to basically stand by for more information,” she said.

She was excited to make the move to Cleveland EMS until she saw a document called a “conditional reimbursement agreement.”

“And as I began reading it I realized it sounded more and more like a contract. In the policy it stated whoever is hired here as an EMT is going to owe up to approximately $15,000 following all the training, the EMT training, the academy cadet training and the field training,” she said.

Each month you work there, the city deducts about $261 from the total of $15,678, according to the documents.

If you leave before five years, you owe the difference.

“After reading that, I was a little taken aback, I was given two days to sign it and get an attorney, which was in no way a good amount of time for me,” she said.

This recruit decided not to sign it, which meant losing out on the job.

She told us her biggest concern was if you take a leave of more than two weeks, that time does not count toward time of service, according to the agreement.

She wasn’t willing to take the chance with a dangerous job as a first responder.

“It’s kind of unfair to those who might take a maternity leave or a military leave. Also you cannot guarantee you won’t get injured,” she said.

Public Safety Director Karrie Howard explained the new policy at a safety committee meeting on Zoom due to the pandemic on July 21.

“What it says is if you come on and get our training, and you leave to go to a different jurisdiction, then you will have to pay the city back for the costs of that training. We want to recruit people, put them through our training, allow them to become familiar with Cleveland and its needs, and hire those folks for the long term,” Howard said.

This new policy only applies to EMTs, not paramedics.

The EMT recruit we spoke with said she was caught off guard and has never heard of 5-year agreements in EMS.

19 Investigates found some public and private ambulance companies offer free training for a 2-year commitment, like EMS Austin-Travis County in Texas.

But we discovered others, like Boston EMS and Pittsburgh EMS do not have a similar policy in place.

The recruit we spoke with also questions the city’s price tag of EMT training, which is $5,400 according to the documents.

19 Investigates found EMT training in our area costs $1,895.99 at Cuyahoga County Community College, Tri-C.

EMT training costs $1,000 at Cleveland Clinic Akron General and $725 at Summa Health.

This was enough to make this recruit walk from the job opportunity.

She’s worried others could do the same, leaving Cleveland EMS short-staffed now or down the road.

“A lot of people are really excited about the opportunity, it’s a city job they’ve been waiting for probably since they’ve finished EMT school like myself. And just jump on it and sign the paper to give the notification without actually reading through all of it,” she said.

19 Investigates found Cleveland Police and Cleveland Fire Department recruits now have to sign similar “reimbursement agreements.”

The city has not provided us details on those agreements.

A Cleveland Fire Department spokesperson said retaining recruits has been more of a problem for police than the fire department.

Cleveland EMS expects to be fully staffed with new EMTs and paramedics by the end of the month.

The Cleveland Association of Rescue Employees, CARE, is the union for Cleveland EMS workers.

They released this statement to 19 Investigates:

“Rather than work to make Cleveland EMS a more desirable workplace, the Jackson Administration has chosen to violate labor law by unilaterally implementing unreasonable retention contracts that are little more than a modern-day form of indentured servitude. Its worth noting that these contracts have backfired, driving away quality applicants. As such, CARE has filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the State Employee Relations Board, and we call upon the Administration to rescind the current contracts and meet us at the bargaining table to work out an equitable deal.”

We reached out to Mayor Frank Jackson’s office for a response and we have not heard back.

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