Paramedics and EMTs working for the large private firm Elite Ambulance say the company illegally deducted the cost of red light and speed camera tickets incurred on the job from their paychecks.
In a class action wage theft lawsuit filed Wednesday in Cook County court, plaintiffs say instead of contesting the tickets, which were incurred during emergency calls while running with lights and sirens, the company charged the cost of the moving violations against employees’ pay without their consent.
“These are paramedics, EMTs, these are people who are engaging in life-saving work,” said attorney Ramsin Canon. “We know that ambulances need to sometimes move a little faster than the rate of traffic, so it’s not something that should come as a surprise … it seems as though the company just didn’t want to be bothered to appeal those tickets, or they just didn’t want to pay for them themselves.”
The two EMTs who are named plaintiffs in the suit say they were told they had to agree to the deduction after the fact and refused. The third plaintiff, a paramedic, says he wasn’t notified at all.
Representatives of Elite Ambulance did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
“The first thing on my mind is taking care of the patient … in an emergency,” said paramedic Pablo Acevedo, one of the plaintiffs. “The last thing on my mind is whether or not we are going through a red light with our lights and sirens on, or what that’s going to cost me as far as my pay.”
Acevedo says when he was younger and new at the company, he was upset about the deductions but didn’t push back. In the years since, he says he’s talked with many other employees who told him the practice goes back years. Acevedo also thinks Elite is picking up the pace.
“Over the past six months, I’ve seen a huge increase in these deduction waivers being forced onto employees ... who they believe are the ‘probable’ drivers of the vehicle at that time,” Acevedo said. “It became really aggravating for me and a few other paramedics who, as we’ve gotten older, have realized that this is just not fair practice.”
The plaintiffs say the tickets they got on the job were for $100 each.
Canon says while $100 is still significant depending on how much money you make, relatively small amounts like these are one of the things that can make cases of alleged wage theft difficult to pursue.
“Unscrupulous employers rely on the idea that people aren’t going to be willing to go to court to recover $100, $200,” Canon said. “That’s why the class actions are so important, because not only does it make sure that everybody gets made whole in this case … but also that there are penalties.”
A judge will need to certify the lawsuit as a class action. Elite’s website says it has 2,000 employees and 175 ambulances working in the Chicago area and Northwest Indiana, meaning the class size and dollar amount of any judgment against the company could be significant.
The paramedics and EMTs Canon eventually came to represent began discussing the alleged wage theft during an organizing drive. Last month, workers at Elite filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.
Acevedo says they’ve had workplace problems like management not properly stocking company vehicles with necessary equipment or medication. He also says low pay means many first responders are struggling to make ends meet.
“The current average pay in this field is already so low and without unionization, emergency health workers are never going to be able to make the money that they deserve,” Acevedo said. “A lot of workers are forced to work 75 hours a week, sometimes 40 hours of overtime just to be able to afford having an apartment in Chicago.”
Canon says whether it’s through unionization or legal action, employees coming together at a workplace helps people exercise their rights.
“That first step of talking to your coworkers openly is so important to making sure that first of all, you don’t just feel alone, but also that you understand that these are systematic things that you can get remedies for,” Canon said.