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Per diem' paramedics float among several jobs

LIVERMORE, Maine For two years, NorthStar EMS paramedic Samantha Massey has worked 40 hours per week rescuing the injured and helping the sick in the Livermore area.

After putting in her hours at that full-time job with the Franklin Memorial Hospital ambulance service, Massey does the same thing for 24 to 36 hours on a per-day basis at Winthrop Ambulance.

"My parents do this kind of work, and I've been involved since I was 16 and volunteered," said Massey, who is studying to become a registered nurse. "I love what I do and I can't just work two days."

She said money is not her priority, "but these jobs can't compare to nursing, where the pay is $25 (per hour) to start, compared to $13 for a paramedic."

Sixty- to 80-hour workweeks are the norm in Maine's emergency medical service agencies. Ambulance services have come to depend on the roving professionals who choose to work by the day, usually for more than one agency.

"People in EMS are like gypsies," said Barbara Demchak, director of Redington-Fairview EMS in Skowhegan. "It is very unusual to find someone who does not have more than one job."

Demchak said her agency relies on nine full-time employees and 17 part-time, or "per diem," rescue personnel, to staff three paramedic-level ambulances 24 hours a day.

Demchak herself augments her administrator's salary with by-the-day work for Anson-Madison-Stark EMS.

"It is hard to have a Saturday or Sunday off in public safety," she said.

After Blaine Rackliffe of East Dixfield finishes his 40-hour shift as an intermediate emergency medical technician for NorthStar, he also works as a reserve police officer in Wilton and Jay and as a dispatcher for Franklin County.

The 33-year-old father of two says he works the shifts because he doesn't earn enough at his full-time job. He said he enjoys the challenge and the variety in what he does, and juggling night shifts actually means more time spent with his family.

"I wish I could afford to just work one job, but these schedules are flexible and I can spend two or three full days a week with the family," he said. "I work 80 hours a week by choice. You put a lot of yourself into this work; and to survive, you have to maintain a balance."

Emergency medical workers can be found moonlighting at their own businesses, at ambulance or public safety services in neighboring towns, across the state or over the state line. The 12- to 40-hour shifts can mean they have the rest of their week free to earn extra money.

"They figure they may not be able to raise their income (with the ambulance service), but they can work another job," said Jay Bradshaw, director of Maine EMS, a paramedic and former director of Winthrop Ambulance who has done his share of part-time work for rescue services.

According to a state survey of hospital-owned ambulance services, the average starting pay for a paramedic is $15.09 an hour, $10.31 for an intermediate EMT and $9.14 for a basic EMT. Senior paramedics can earn more than $20 an hour.

With ambulance services reluctant to offer overtime to fill vacant shifts, they turn to a pool of "per diems," workers paid by the day without benefits.

Those day workers are to ambulance services what substitute teachers are to schools, Demchak said: They are invaluable.

"We depend on per diems," she said. "Our ambulances have teams of two, and if someone calls in sick, that truck is off-line unless we can fill that shift."

NorthStar's director David Robie said out of 85 employees, about half are paid by the day. These workers have to go through the same orientation and application process as full-time employees and are fully qualified. Although some are looking for full-time work, others with spouses whose jobs provide benefits prefer the by-the-day arrangement.

"They may want to work at different places for the experience because they might have newer or different equipment, but most do it for the money," Robie said.

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