Paramedics and EMTs often feel called to their jobs.

Many report a high degree of joy and challenge from working in a helping profession. Yet, despite their calling, some are quitting EMS in pursuit of new horizons.

Let’s look at the factors that cause first responders to leave the profession and potential solutions.

1 — Underlying health concerns affect volunteers

“We have probably seen a 20% drop in the workforce in South Dakota,” said Eric Van Dusen, president of South Dakota EMS Association in Sioux Falls, S.D.  “We are mostly losing our volunteers.”

Since South Dakota is comprised of about 85% volunteer EMS providers, Van Dusen said it’s not a problem to ignore, acknowledging that other states have larger numbers of walkouts compared to his state.

Volunteers leave EMS for several reasons. The big three, according to Van Dusen:

  1. Increased demand on medics from the pandemic
  2. Fear of treating COVID-19 patients
  3. Self-preservation for seasoned medics advancing in age

“Because of their age, they have their own health risks and issues and have stepped away,” he said, adding that some may return when the infection curve flattens.

2 — Unbearable conditions

Selena Xie, LP, BSN, makes it look easy to manage her three distinct professional roles. She serves as president of the Austin EMS Association, picks up EMS shifts for colleagues, and works as an ICU nurse on weekends.

Xie has recently spoken out about why EMTs and paramedics are walking off their jobs. Safety concerns and undesirable working conditions have some longtime career medics opting for early retirement, she said. “A hot Texas summer while wearing all that PPE, protests, and COVID-19 has put some people over the edge.”

She believes the number of those quitting EMS will grow unless the problems are addressed with real solutions and followed up with real action.

“We had 27 people leave in 2019 and in 2020,” Xie said. “We have already had 24 [people quit] and the year is not over yet, and I know we have more planned separations.”

3 — Unfair pay hits home

The annual average EMT or paramedic salary is $37,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Top earners max out just under $60,000.

Long hours and low pay are the leading factors that contribute to quitting EMS, Van Dusen said. Especially since there are other jobs with similar pay, minus the health risks. In South Dakota, Van Dusen said the average EMS pay is $17 to $18 per hour.

“Some EMTs and paramedics have to work two and three jobs,” Van Dusen said. “The next generation of EMTs and paramedics do not want to have to work 80 hours a week.”

4 — Safety concerns hit home

Medics know the inherent risks that go with the job, and Xie said many are adept at taking precautions to minimize personal risks. Plus, plenty of medics have been called into action during past infectious disease outbreaks, including SARS and EBOLA, which adds confidence to their skills.

However, the job puts family members at risk — and that is something first responders cannot control as easily.

“What is the most concerning is that you can bring COVID-19 home to your kids or parents,” Xie said.

5 — Retirement benefits equity debate

Another sore spot for first responders is pensions and the number of years it takes to reap their benefits. After 30 years of service, and 62 years of age, EMS retirees may receive 75% pension pay benefits. She said those numbers differ for police and fire.

“In Austin, our EMS pension is much worse compared to other pensions, like police and fire,” Xie said. “You only have to work 23 years for police, and 25 years for fire, so we actually have people leaving EMS for police and fire because the pension and pay is better.” She added age requirements also vary.

She believes EMS providers should receive fair pay — the point of contention — but no one will publicly defend EMS pay scale. And for that reason, medics are fed up and walking off the job.

“I support firefighters and police, I just wish they paid medics fairly and that there was pay parody with police and fire,” Xie said.

Thinking about quitting EMS?

The first step is to know your rights. Did you know you have the right to ask for a severance package if you choose to leave? And sometimes, even with wrongful termination, employees may try to negotiate a severance package, according to employment experts.

The first step, research the federally enacted WARN act to determine whether it can provide some employment protections to you and your family.

Stay prepared with our COVID-19 resources page for EMS professionals.