EMS Union President: Hemorrhaging Jobs Because of Low Pay

Says 5-Year Turnover Rate Is 70%, Much of It Due To Firefighter Gap 

By RICHARD STEIER | March 11, 2021

The Chief

As the Fire Department prepares to mark the 25th anniversary March 17 of its absorption of the Emergency Medical Service from the old Health and Hospitals Corporation, the head of the union for Emergency Medical Technicians asked when his members’ pay would move into the 21st century and approach even terms with that of Firefighters.

Oren Barzilay said in a March 9 phone interview that the starting pay for EMTs is “a dollar over minimum wage. It’s insulting.”

Top Pay a Deterrent

But an even-greater problem exists at the top of the salary scale, with EMTs who have at least 5 1/2 years on the job getting just $51,000 in base pay—60 percent of the $85,000 and change that Firefighters at maximum salary receive.

When other benefits are added, the gap grows even wider, owing to more-generous longevity differentials and better overtime rules for Firefighters that bring their average total compensation to $110,000, he said. His own members once fringe benefits are added in only get to $55,000, Mr. Barzilay said, except for those assigned to some units which have 208 hours of overtime built into their schedules that yields another $8,000.

Those disparities are great enough that many members don’t even reach top pay before quitting, the president of EMS Local 2507 of District Council 37 said, noting, “The average employee stays here three or four years. Within five years, we lose 70 percent of our members. And 30 percent of our turnover rate goes to Fire. That’s a dream job: besides the better pay,[you can] be a Firefighter in the most-prestigious Fire Department in the world.”

One reason so many EMTs are able to switch to the fire side of the FDNY despite an attrition rate among Firefighters that is far lower than for other uniformed positions, including Police Officer, is that they are allowed to take a special promotion exam that gives them hiring preference over those who take the open-competitive test for the job. That’s why more than a few EMTs enter the service with an eye toward becoming Firefighters as quickly as they can to take advantage of the higher pay and superior pension plan and other fringe benefits.

Hurts Quality of Care

However much that career path may overcome the relatively low starting salary for EMTs as a recruitment tool, it has a negative effect on the quality of patient care, something top EMS managers have spoken of at recent City Council hearings.

Mr. Barzilay quoted some of the same studies they have cited. “Patient outcome is determined by experience,” he said, because the more time spent in the job, the more-skilled EMTs become, not only at performing life-saving medical work under pressure but in quickly assessing what’s wrong with a patient. Newer members of the service may bring energy and enthusiasm to the job, he explained, but “they don’t recognize the symptoms the way someone with 10 or 15 years’ [service] will.”

The Catch-22 is that it’s hard to retain seasoned workers because they can earn far more not only as Firefighters but in other cities where a pay gap with other emergency workers is slender or nonexistent. In Boston, Mr. Barzilay said, the difference in salary between Firefighters and EMTs is just 2 percent. In San Francisco, he said the City Charter stipulates equal pay for Firefighters, EMTs and Police Officers.

But salary relationships in New York have been skewed from the time that collective bargaining was formalized in the mid-1960s and cops and firefighters were at the top of the uniformed pecking order and correction officers and sanitation workers were close behind. EMS workers weren’t part of those early calculations: as part of HHC, they were considered to be civilian hospital workers.

A ‘Danger Differential’

The gap has continued to widen since then because, as Mr. Barzilay noted, most Mayors have honored a “uniformed differential” under which, as three-term Mayor Ed Koch put it, they got slightly higher increases in each round of bargaining in recognition of the greater danger of their jobs.

If there was a time when being an EMT carried less risk than being part of those uniformed groups, Mr. Barzilay said, it is ancient history. His members are routinely assaulted on the job, sometimes by the patients they are trying to treat—a couple of days before he spoke, a female EMT suffered a severe bite wound on her face from a 17-year-old girl with mental issues.

Early in the pandemic, concern about firefighters getting the virus and spreading it to their entire firehouses and families led the Fire Department to order that only EMTs would respond to medical calls where the patient was showing symptoms of the coronavirus. His members paid the price in terms of both illnesses and emotional trauma, Mr. Barzilay said: “five deaths from COVID, three suicides.” 

He added, “Then there’s the assaults our members are exposed to on a daily basis. There’s a lot of risk factors in our job that they don’t get credit for.”

Two years ago, in a pre-virus city, Mayor de Blasio explained the huge salary gap between EMTs and Firefighters by saying that as much as he appreciated EMS’s work, “their jobs are different.” His Labor Commissioner at the time, Robert W. Linn, who was just about to retire, seconded that point while noting that EMS salaries were comparable to and in some cases slightly better than what private-sector EMTs were getting.

Tough to Crack Pattern

But Mr. Barzilay said such arguments should have been mothballed as EMTs took on a greater burden during the pandemic while continuing to respond to far more calls than Firefighters, who themselves were summoned far more often to medical calls than structural fires. His quest for pay raises that would narrow the salary gap was interrupted last year after “COVID hit and it put a halt on everything,” particularly traditional contract discussions across a table.

Asked whether Renee Campion, who succeeded Mr. Linn as head of the Office of Labor Relations, had been any more receptive to the union’s arguments, the Local 2507 leader replied, “We haven’t had any sign from OLR that they’re willing to change their position on this. The city likes to use pattern bargaining, but pattern bargaining will never get us to where we need to be.”

He sidestepped a question as to how much of a raise he believed the union should get this round to begin to close the salary gulf. “We’re just looking for a pay adjustment,” Mr. Barzilay said. “If they give us the standard [7.95 percent] wage adjustment, that’s not going to get us anywhere near where we need to be.”

That remark symbolized part of the problem. The figure Mr. Barzilay was referring to was the wage deal a coalition of uniformed unions agreed to 15 months ago covering a three-year period. But Local 2507 is part of District Council 37, a civilian-employee union, which actually settled its contract in 2018, getting a slightly smaller wage increase, and over a 44-month period, rather than the 36 months that has been the standard for uniformed unions this bargaining round.

Ms. Campion declined to comment on the talks, saying that she “didn’t want to negotiate in the press.”

Rules Out Arbitration

Usually municipal unions seeking to exceed an established bargaining pattern have had to make their cases in arbitration, but Mr. Barzilay said, “We want to get this done without going that route.”

But unless the Mayor and Ms. Campion have a dramatic change in thinking, Local 2507’s best shot at obtaining a breakout contract could lie in the outcome of the race to succeed Mr. de Blasio.

Mr. Barzilay said that the one candidate who has sought the local’s endorsement, which he said would be given separately from DC 37’s choice, was City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who he claimed “has committed to full parity.”

A spokesman for Mr. Stringer did not immediately respond when asked whether he had made such a pledge.

As enticing as that sounded, coming from one of the early favorites to be elected Mayor, the union leader said the Comptroller had not secured Local 2507’s endorsement, and he and his board would listen to any candidate who wanted to discuss the issue.

Others Want More, Too

He was asked about the difficulty of the city under any Mayor stepping far beyond the bargaining pattern to reward an employee group that said its circumstances demanded that something extraordinary be done. In fact, the Police Benevolent Association, whose members are working under a contract that expired nearly 44 months ago, is awaiting arbitration to make the case that Police Officers are paid far less than their counterparts in neighboring jurisdictions, including Metropolitan Transportation Authority cops and State Troopers who are working in the city, that they shouldn’t be held to the pattern.

Mr. Barzilay responded that this just proved his point. “They’re making $80, $90,000,” he said of Police Officers, “and they’re crying poverty. So that tells you what we’re going through. We just want justice.”

Following a lengthy meeting March 11 with First Deputy Labor Commissioner Steven Banks, Mr. Barzilay said he had received a new offer and “we’re working on achieving our parity goal with the city. They’ve made some positive movements.”

He added that the union would respond to the proposal when the two sides met again in a couple of weeks.