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How bad is the EMS staffing and diversity shortage, and how does Hennepin EMS want to solve it?

Among 164 HCAPE union members, Erickson estimated that only nine members are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), and 38 members are nonmale.

EMS paramedics
Hennepin Healthcare and North Memorial are creating a program to try and increase diversity in their workforces by offering high salaries while people get certified.
REUTERS/Nick Oxford

From educational institutions to the technology industry, workplaces are searching for more diversity in their employees. After all, studies have shown that having a diverse workforce is powerful. 

Within Minneapolis, there is a shortage of emergency medical service (EMS) professionals and a lack of diversity within the emergency medical technician and paramedic fields. Hennepin Healthcare and North Memorial are creating a program to try to increase diversity in their workforces by offering high salaries while people get certified. 

The EMS department at HCMC (Hennepin County Medical Center) is around 20 to 30 people short of its budgeted goal, which could partially be attributed to the stresses of the job, said Sam Erickson, the vice president of the Hennepin County Association of Paramedics and EMTs (HCAPE).

Over the years, the number of EMS professionals in Minnesota has dwindled, decreasing around 16 percent from 2018 to 2021. This quarter, there are 4,910 people in the workforce, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). 

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According to a survey conducted by the American Ambulance Association, the turnover among paramedics and EMTs ranges from 20 to 30 percent annually. 

“The pandemic has been a huge stress for all of us. After the murder of George Floyd, we were the primary agency responding to civil unrest in Minneapolis … our people were the ones who were kind of in the thick of that when the civil unrest was going on,” Erickson said. 

Erickson, a paramedic, said that staffing shortages and a higher volume of calls led to paramedics and EMTs working around 10 to 12 hours of overtime each week. Because of that, EMS professionals have experienced more mental health struggles, according to Daniel Sebo, the deputy chief of staff at Hennepin EMS. 

“If you think of everything that’s been going on over the past few years, looking at the combination of COVID, the civil unrest that we’ve had here in Minnesota and really across the nation, it’s created a very stressful environment,” Sebo said. “That, coupled with the lack of paramedics and an increased call volume, it’s really increasing the individual stress and the mental health toll that it’s taking on our staff.”

Why does diversity matter?

Among 164 HCAPE union members, Erickson estimated that only nine members are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), and 38 members are nonmale.

While their workforce is becoming more balanced gender-wise, Erickson said ethnic diversity is very lacking.  

“It’s to the point where I could name those folks readily because there are so few,” Erickson said. 

A national study from 2017 found that African American and Hispanic EMTs and paramedics were underrepresented in the field, comparing data of newly certified EMTs and paramedics to the U.S. Census Bureau’s population data by region. 

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Hennepin County is 67.9% white and 29.4% people of color, according to Minnesota Compass. A workforce that reflects that, would contribute to better health equity among those underrepresented communities, Erickson believes.  

“It’s meaningful to have representation when you call 911 when you are in a vulnerable state, to have people that look like you respond that have the same life experiences as you, maybe speak the same language as you, is really a big deal,” Erickson said. 

Following the murder of George Floyd, communities called for a reimagining of public safety. A more diverse EMS workforce is one aspect of that, Erickson says.

Incentivizing the career 

Other agencies, like fire and police departments, are more diverse than EMS, Erickson said. That can be attributed to the barriers to becoming an EMT or paramedic compared to other careers.  

The Minneapolis Fire Department trains people to become EMTs and firefighters in about six to nine months. To become a paramedic, individuals must independently become an EMT and then go to paramedic school, which is around two years. 

“I think for a lot of folks, there’s just a calculus of ‘if I’m looking at apples to apples, I’m going to make the choice to save time and money and go the route of the fire department.'”

In efforts to bring more people into the field, specifically, a more diverse workforce, Hennepin EMS is starting a recruiting program to help bridge the gap between EMT and paramedic careers and reduce the barriers to getting a paramedic certification, Sebo said. 

The program is modeled on the existing City of Minneapolis EMS pathways program, where students receive $15 an hour while obtaining their EMT certification. The first graduating class of 28 students back in 2016, was 91% individuals of color and over 50% female, Sebo said. 

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“(That’s) a stark difference from what you would currently see in the EMS profession. So it’s opening some of those doors, taking away some of the socioeconomic barriers that might make it difficult to take that time off or pay the tuition and, you know, achieve that.” 

Hennepin EMS plans to pay community members to become EMTs. Trainees will receive a full-time salary of $22 an hour and full benefits while in school for it, starting in the fall. 

“For those individuals who can’t justify paying their $10-, $11,000 tuition and taking a year off of work for school, this is a pathway where they’re able to maintain full-time employment and benefits,” Sebo said.