Where does the line get drawn with regard to the personal use of company equipment and supplies? A certain amount of personal use of an employer’s “stuff” seems to be common and accepted practice these days. For instance, the use of a workplace computer to check sports scores or order from an online merchant is a regular occurrence in American workplaces. But what about some of the relatively expensive equipment found in the EMS workplace? For instance, what are the rules when it comes to using one of your employer’s ambulances to stop at the store for a few personal items, or to swing by your child’s soccer game?
The first rule is that there are no hard and fast rules—those are set by each employer. No state laws of which we are aware would regulate what can and cannot be done with an ambulance or other EMS equipment when it’s not engaged in active EMS operations.
There may be laws, regulations or policies that require on-duty ambulances to remain in a specified coverage zone or operating area. Certainly there could be consequences for violating these requirements. Otherwise, so long as the agency is not violating any rules regarding vehicle deployment, this would not pose a legal barrier to occasional personal use of a company vehicle.
Where the bigger issue comes into play, however, is whether the employee is violating the employer’s policies with regard to the personal use of company equipment. If an employer permits employees to use ambulances or other company vehicles for occasional, minor personal errands, then that is up to the employer. On the other hand, if the employer has a “zero tolerance” policy, prohibiting the use of company vehicles for any personal use, then the employer would likely be within its rights to discipline or terminate an employee for such conduct.
If the workplace is unionized, discipline for violating any such rules would have to be resolved with reference to the collective bargaining agreement in place between the union and the employer.
Extra caution should be taken when the vehicles, equipment or other supplies belong to a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization. State and federal laws generally prohibit “private inurement”—that is—using tax-exempt assets to benefit specific individuals.
Although an occasional trip to the store would likely not catch the attention of the IRS, regular use of nonprofit assets for private benefit could very well become an issue that could even jeopardize the tax-exempt status of an organization.
Although occasional use of an ambulance or other vehicle is one thing, the “pilfering” of supplies for personal use is another issue altogether. Taking one band-aid out of the jump kit is commonplace, and probably would be OK with most employers, but helping yourself to supplies needed to stock your personal jump kit would be something else entirely. Again, the rules are ultimately up to the employer, but few employers would tolerate the theft of company supplies in this fashion.
The bottom line is that employers should take the time to write clear and workable policies on this issue—and then employees would be well-served to follow those policies. If no written policy is in place, but employers knowingly permit or tolerate the use of vehicles or equipment, then that might create a de facto policy permitting it. A clear written policy removes the guesswork for both parties.
Pro Bono is written by attorneys Doug Wolfberg and Steve Wirth, founding partners of Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, a national EMS industry law firm. Visit the firm’s website at www.pwwemslaw.com.