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'Tis the Flu Season: Do we get paid when we're sick?

mythbusters

The holidays -- a time of joy, laughter and family -- are upon us. However, another season is also starting: flu season. You're being extra diligent: You're wearing a mask, your patients are wearing masks, and what the heck, masks for everyone!

Then it happens. The tones drop, and out the door you go on an ill-health-sick-person-we-don't-know-what's-going-on-just-come-fast call. You get there safely, make contact with Grandma and, as you introduce yourself, she hacks all over you. At that moment, thousands of viruses, which happen to be named "influenza," are flying right into your mouth. You guessed it -- when tomorrow morning rolls around, you'll feel like, well, you know what you feel like. So guess who's not going to work? You!

Myth: EMS PROVIDERS RECEIVE ADEQUATE PAID SICK TIME.

WHAT WE KNOW
You hear it all the time: Don't come to work when you're sick -- you'll get everyone else sick; you're not going to help your patients, and it's going to take you longer to get better.

All that may be true, but when Johnny Mortgage and the Utility family come to collect, you may just need all the paid hours you can get. Paid sick time is a very important benefit. However, many EMS providers don't receive it. We've always assumed that because we get paid to take care of sick people, maybe we should get paid when we're sick. Let's see what our paid sick leave story really is.

We analyzed data from the 2001 LEADS survey. LEADS is a national survey of EMS professionals we've often used to answer myths in this column. We found that 74% of EMS professionals have paid sick leave benefits. That sounds pretty good, but that also means a quarter of us can't afford to take a sick day.

Next, we wanted to determine if the number of individuals who received paid sick leave benefits differed by some common characteristic. Specifically, we looked at certification level, service type, community size, gender and race. The LEADS survey has hundreds of data fields, so why didn't we look at them all? Well, in research that's called "data mining," and it's slightly frowned upon. If you want to find meaningful differences between groups of individuals, you have to make an effort to pick the variables you're most interested in before you begin the analysis. We picked these five variables because they represent a good snapshot of an individual's work/life and demographic characteristics.

We found fairly large differences between the groups. One of the largest differences is among service types, with 90% of individuals working for fire departments receiving paid sick leave benefits and only 65% of those with other EMS organizations receiving the benefit. Among males, 80% stated they receive paid sick leave compared with 57% of females. Also, a higher percentage of minorities report receiving paid sick leave compared with Caucasians.

WHAT WE STILL DON'T KNOW
This data shows some pretty serious issues, but let's talk about the limitations first. This is a survey of only nationally registered EMS professionals, and the results may be different in your community. Also, volunteers in EMS probably don't receive benefits, specifically paid sick time. In order to address this limitation, we tried to exclude volunteers from our analysis. However, there's a good chance a small proportion slipped through.

Finally, some of you may have noticed that when we looked at the differences between types of services, we compared individuals in a fire department with individuals working for "other" organizations. You may be asking yourself, what the heck does "other" mean? Unfortunately, the service-type categories we typically use in Mythbusters weren't collected when these data were selected in 2001. So, we were forced to lump individuals not working for a fire-based service into one nondescript group. Therefore, we don't know how many of the people in the "other" category work for private, municipal or county-based services. This limits our ability to make meaningful comparisons of individuals who work for a variety of services.

Verdict: Rejected. Some 25% of EMS providers reported not receiving paid sick time. Life in EMS is stressful. Not being able to take time off because you're sick is even more stressful. Taking care of our patients is important, but taking care of ourselves and our families is even more important. Until next time, stay safe -- and wear a mask! --JEMS

Melissa Bentley, BS, NREMT-P, is a research fellow at the National Registry of EMTs and is pursuing her master's in public health. She's been involved in EMS for three years.

Antonio R. Fernandez, BS, NREMT-P, is a research fellow for the National Registry of EMTs. He's currently pursuing a master's degree in public health. Fernandez also has experience as a clinical assistant in a Level 1 trauma center as an EMT-B and a paramedic.

Jon Studnek, PhD, NREMT-P, is a research fellow for the National Registry of EMTs. He has been an EMT/paramedic for six years.

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