By Jason D. Haag, CCEMT-P, CIC, CAC, CADS
September 17, 2021
COVID-19 landed in New York City in March 2020 with devastating consequences. Forty-three hundred members of the FDNY Emergency Medical Service Local 2507 quickly became the undisputed public face of the care, compassion and dedication of front-line medical first responders protecting millions of New Yorkers. The FDNY EMS service had long been in the shadow of the city’s other well-known and respected first responders, especially when it came the attention paid to wages, burnout, turnover, job stresses, mental health and safety. In January 2020, EMS Local 2507 President Oren Barzilay set out to change things and focus on workplace equity for his members, who he says were seriously undervalued and taken for granted by city leaders. Initial campaign efforts centered around January public hearings on the workplace concerns of the EMS workforce. He made it a mission to elevate awareness of this mostly female and minority workforce — EMTs and paramedics – who the year prior had responded to over 1.5 million requests for service. Within many communities, where medical access is lacking or unaffordable, FDNY EMS providers are affectionately called New York City’s “street doctors.”
For too long, EMS workers were taken for granted, reflected by a wage gap in which they earned 40% less than police and firefighters. At the time, EMTs started at only $16.96/per hour, less than $2 above minimum wage. Spotlighting such inequities was central to Barzilay’s campaign. In anticipation that the coronavirus would soon hit New York City, he partnered with the president of the 65,000-member NY State Nurses Association to lead a major press conference warning of a lack of readiness, staffing and equipment to signal government leaders of the seriousness of the coming medical crisis. When COVID-19 arrived later in March, Barzilay had already cemented himself as an important voice on the crisis. Barzilay became the bridge to sharing the dire medical realities on the streets of the city, in ambulances and the overcrowded hospital corridors. When the state of New York changed the treatment standards to a “do not resuscitate” in certain life or death circumstances, he alerted the public, arguing that his members were being prevented from doing what they were always trained to do: save lives. News stories including the front page of the New York Post and the Associated Press captured the attention of the State Department of Health, which rescinded the order less than 24 hours after issuing it.
It took just weeks for EMS to evolve into a valuable, but second-tier group of first responders (as seen by the media and many city leaders) to a force never seen before. They become an advocate and moral voice the of New York citizens they are sworn to protect. In Spring of 2020, 911 calls were two-to-three times their usual levels, putting an enormous strain on the workforce. EMS workers faced death and devastation beyond even what their emergency medical training prepared them for. Some members reported responding to 10 or more COVID deaths in a single shift, increasing job stress, trauma, emotional toll and personal risk. The membership needed all the strength and advocacy the union could muster in the darkest moments of the crisis.
Barzilay took to the media and highlighted the lack of PPE for his members. Working around the clock and seven days a week, Barzilay and other union leaders continuously spotlighted the sacrifices their workforce were making: sleeping in their cars or on station house couches for weeks at a time to avoid bringing the virus back home. He documented the intensive medical training that his compassionate caregivers have, arguing that the city must be a better employer. Union members have since voted to ratify a retroactive wage agreement with the city.
As coronavirus cases began to ebb, Barzilay was determined to keep the attention and pressure on addressing the lack of mental health support and counseling for EMS members, many of whom are experiencing trauma from months of being exposed to this insidious virus and its devastating death toll. Later that year, FDNY EMS was ordered by the mayor to replace NYPD on calls involving emotionally disturbed individuals.
Objecting to the implementation, Barzilay has called for special safety protections and training to answer these higher-risk calls. Local 638 leadership is still advocating for higher wages and better work conditions but can now leverage the enhanced status FDNY EMS workers attained during the pandemic. The efforts, advocacy and leadership since January 2020 has brought about a sea-change for the brand and reputation of FDNY EMS members. As president of the largest EMS union in the nation, Barzilay’s leadership and advocacy has made a difference. Be it fighting for higher wages, calling for action when workers are hurt on the job, or need mental health resources, Oren has proven to be an exceptionally effective leader.