HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - "Significant progress" has been made in trying to ease the staffing shortage that's forcing some city ambulance crews to sometimes work 16-hour days, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told Hawaii News Now Thursday.
The city Emergency Medical Services division suffers from a 15 percent vacancy rate among paramedics and emergency medical technicians on its ambulances. As a result, medics are routinely forced to work a second shift, meaning 16 hours straight caring for critically ill and injured patients.
Caldwell said the medics' union, the United Public Workers, has initially agreed to increase their shifts from eight to 12 hours. That would allow the city run its 22 ambulances using one third less staff each day.
"If they get a 12-hour shift, they're still not really tired," Caldwell said."And they can go home after the shift, and they don't have to stay for another shift and it also means that they're going to get more time off, get time off on the weekends so they can re-charge their batteries so that when they come back to work they're sharp."
While the union has initially agreed on the length of the shift, the city still must negotiate key details such as the start and end times and time off, said Mark Rigg, the city's emergency services director.
For instance, whether crews will work three 12-hour days and then get two days off is one option still being discussed, EMS officials said.
Another negotiating session is scheduled for next week, Rigg said.
In an unprecedented move, Caldwell said he attended a city negotiation session earlier this month with the UPW union to push for a solution on a problem the city has been trying to tackle for three years.
Caldwell said medics' current staffing situation "is disruptive to their families and themselves, they're very tired. They can't plan their own personal lives and it's something that needs to be resolved."
Medics are calling in sick after sometimes working three or four 16-hour days in a row, making the shortage worse. And others are leaving for higher-paid, less stressful jobs at fire departments and hospitals.
"They're overworked and because they have to do double shifts, people leave," Caldwell said. They say 'I can't do this anymore.' And so there's a shortage, which means more double shifts. It's a cycle we want to break and I think we're going to be able to do it."
Rigg said the city is working on a plan to offer incentives to get entry-level EMTs to stay with the city and not leave for other jobs. He said the details are still being negotiated with the union so he couldn't elaborate on specifics.
"If you look at the national trend for EMS, it's usually a five- to seven-year career and people move on to other things for various reasons," Rigg said. "What we'd like to do is create more opportunities in our department, for a better career ladder. Provide people with opportunities that don't mean they have to be running calls on the road."