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River Falls, feds disagree on paramedic pay

A federal review of the way River Falls pays its volunteer ambulance workers may not cost the city back wages but will, to a small degree, change how volunteers are used, say local officials.

The audit, begun early this year, ended in conflicting conclusions by city officials, who insist River Falls owes no back pay to any ambulance workers, and a U.S. Department of Labor Wage & Hour Division director's opinion that the city does indeed owe money to two paramedics.

The Department of Labor reviewed two years of city records involving compensation for volunteer EMTs and paramedics, said River Falls City Administrator Scot Simpson. He said the review did not include looking at pay for fulltime workers.

The ambulance service has 30 volunteer EMTs and paramedics. They are paid $2.60 per hour for on-call time and from $15 to $32 per run if they are called out, said EMS Director Jeff Rixmann. The paramedics are paid more than the EMTs for runs.

The department has four fulltime paramedics, one temporary fulltime paramedic and five part-time paramedics.

"We believe, obviously, that we didn't violate anything," said Simpson of the review of pay.

But Wage & Hour District Director Ann Buysman disagrees.

"The recent investigation of your organization ... disclosed that you did not pay employees the overtime compensation required by the (Fair Labor Standards Act)," wrote Buysman in a letter dated Aug. 2.

"I understand you have agreed to comply with the act in the future, but you have not agreed to pay the back wages due your employees," continued Buysman.

The letter says that if the ambulance service doesn't pay those employees for the allegedly-owed overtime, the agency will advise the workers that they can sue for back wages and may be awarded up to twice the amount due plus attorney's fees.

"They discussed amounts, but there wasn't any amount in the letter," said Simpson of the amount the DOL believes River Falls owes the two paramedics.

He said the city's position that there was no back pay or overtime owed, but the DOL asked the city to voluntarily agree to pay an amount to those two employees.

"We didn't agree to that," said Simpson, who wouldn't say how much the DOL was suggesting paying, except that he "wouldn't categorize it as significant amounts."

The letter said basically that the DOL workers understand the city's position, they don't agree, but they don't intend to pursue action, summarized Simpson.

"Most of it came down to the fact whether or not the employees are volunteers," he said.

Simpson said there are several tests to determine if an employee is a volunteer.

One standard is the "nominal fee" test. If a person accepts less than 20% of what a fulltime regular worker would make, he or she is not considered an employee, said Simpson. In this case 20% of the usual annual pay for a paramedic is about $12,500.

Two River Falls volunteer paramedics had been paid just over that amount, said Simpson.

He said the city took its review a step farther, went back over the two years and looked at everything -- training, work and on-call hours -- and divided that into the amount paid to make sure the volunteers still weren't owed back or overtime pay.

"We did the whole calculation and submitted it to the DOL," said Simpson, adding the city concluded it had fairly paid the volunteer paramedics.

"Those two people didn't ask the city for back wages or overtime," he added.

The volunteers are motivated by a desire to serve, said Simpson. "They are not doing it for the money. They're doing it to serve the community."

He said the Fair Labor Standards Act exempts volunteers from minimum wage and overtime laws: "Those laws are meant for employees."

After the review, the DOL asked if the city would be willing to calculate back pay a different way, said Simpson. River Falls officials didn't agree to that, he said.

But the ambulance services is moving toward a fulltime, part-time and volunteer model so it's clear who is what, said Simpson.

The city has reviewed procedures and talked to ambulance workers about their perceptions. Simpson said the service is working on changes that make it clear that a volunteer is a volunteer, that volunteers stay below the 20%-pay rule, and that people are being treated and paid fairly.

"It doesn't really change things for us a whole lot from what we're doing now," agreed Rixmann. But, he said, the department will be watching to ensure that no volunteer paramedic is paid more than 20% of what a fulltime worker would get.

"It's been an interesting experience, it took a long time, (but) I'm not sure it's complete," summarized Simpson.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.