Underpaid and overworked: West Virginia EMS agencies call for state funding as end of session nears
EMS workers gather outside the West Virginia Capitol as they wait to hear whether a key bill will move forward. Photo by Ellie Heffernan
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The setting sun cast a golden glow on Lincoln County EMS Director Trish Watson. She’d already been at the West Virginia Capitol all afternoon and evening was approaching.
But Watson — and the group of Lincoln, Logan and Kanawha County emergency medical services workers standing outside the building with her — weren’t going home yet.
The House Finance Committee was set to take up a bill that would create a fund to enhance the salaries of EMS workers. And Watson and the others weren’t leaving until they knew whether the bill would move forward.
“I don’t think people understand that our staff are making $12 to $13 an hour, to work 90 hours this week because there is no one else to take their place,” Watson said.
Lincoln County EMS isn’t alone. Unlike every neighboring state, West Virginia provides no state funding for EMS. So, cash-strapped local agencies often struggle to retain workers and pay them fairly.
Recently, the state lost more than 35% of emergency medical technicians and 15% of paramedics, according to the WV EMS Coalition.
But despite this mass exodus and years of calls for funding from local EMS agencies, lawmakers have yet to pass a bill funding these key services as the legislative session enters its final days.
This session, lawmakers have introduced nearly a dozen bills to ease the financial burdens on EMS agencies, but only two pieces of legislation still stand a good chance of becoming law. One would create a fund to improve salaries at local agencies. The other would provide funding for equipment and training.
EMS workers say these bills would be a step in the right direction — but other bills to help EMS have been sidelined, and lawmakers and the governor are divided on whether to allocate money to improve pay.
In the House Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday, some lawmakers criticized one of the bills, SB 737, for creating a salary enhancement fund without putting any money in it.
“While I’m certain the EMS providers are more than worthy of having salary enhancements, I don’t think this is the way to do it,” said Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer. “If we’re going to enhance someone’s salary, this Legislature, this Finance Committee, needs to appropriate dollars and set those aside for that specific purpose, not just simply say ‘We’re going to, but we’re not going to give you any money to accomplish it.’”
Several members of the committee stressed that lawmakers frequently create funds and allocate money in the state budget to them later. The bill passed out of committee and will likely be up for a vote on the House floor on Friday.
Although Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor, voted to move the Senate bill forward, she said she preferred a House bill that would provide annual funding for EMS equipment and training.
By increasing a fee paid on fire and casualty insurance that currently only goes to volunteer fire departments, the bill would provide an estimated $6.2 million dollars to the EMS Equipment and Training Fund. It will likely be up for a vote on the Senate floor on Friday.
Even though the fund was created during the 2018 legislative session, it has yet to receive any money. Before this year’s session, the WV EMS Coalition asked for a one-time appropriation of $30 million to the fund in a letter to Gov. Jim Justice.
Instead, Justice asked lawmakers during his State of the State address to allocate $10 million towards an EMS recruitment and training initiative he launched last year.
Joe Strait, a longtime EMS worker in Tucker County, said the governor’s recruitment and training initiative has somewhat improved his county’s staffing problems. Last year, funding cuts by local officials caused workers to leave preemptively out of concerns they’d eventually lose their jobs. But since, a few people took classes through the governor’s initiative and have joined the agency.
Strait and other EMS workers have been pushing for another bill that would allow county commissions to impose a $1 fee on certain tourism and recreation activities to fund EMS providers and fire departments. This bill is stuck in the House Economic Development and Tourism committee and is running out of time to become law.
Strait said funding equipment and training is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. And the tourism fee bill would give local EMS agencies more discretion about how to use money — including using it to enhance salaries.
That would make a big difference in Tucker County, where he said EMS workers are paid poorly compared to other counties in the region.
“I make less than somebody at McDonald’s,” Strait said. “I can go over to another county and make $19 an hour. . . I have my military pension. So that helps me survive. But even with that, I still don’t make enough to cover all my bills.”
With two days left in the legislative session, lawmakers and the governor have different ideas about how to put money towards EMS.
The Senate’s proposed budget includes $10 million for the yet-to-be-created salary enhancement fund, but the proposals put forth by the governor and the House do not. Instead, they’ve each proposed allocating $10 million to continue the governor’s training initiative. These differences will have to be hashed out in a single budget.