EMS Unions Say City Defense of Salary Gap Ignores Race, Gender

Claim Pay Bias, Not What’s Offered in Private Sector, Accounts for Difference

By Bob Hennelley | The Chief | February 25, 2019

Comments made by former Labor Commissioner Robert W. Linn defending Mayor de Blasio’s explanation for the large salary gap between Emergency Medical Technicians and other first-responders that their “work is different” were blasted by the Emergency Medical Service unions, which said Mr. Linn ignored the role gender and race-based bias played.  

In a Feb. 6 interview with this newspaper Mr. Linn said, “The Mayor got it right…The work is different.”

A $35,000 Gap

EMS is made up primarily of women and people of color and District Council 37 Locals 2507 and 3621 are pressing a class-action lawsuit that alleges salaries for the job that are roughly $35,000 below salaries for Firefighters, who are mostly white, is the result of longstanding pay discrimination.   

Local 2507 President Oren Barzilay said that Mr. Linn’s remarks “saying in essence he thinks it’s OK to pay EMS a fraction of what the city’s other first-responders are paid speaks volumes of how deeply rooted disparate pay goes and how much work this city has to do to root out bias.”  

“This statement from Bob Linn that EMS workers should be treated ‘different’ solidifies his legacy as being on the wrong side of history in the fight for pay parity and equal employment,” said Vincent Variale, president of Local 3621.

City Council Member I. Daneek Miller, who chairs the Civil Service and Labor Committee, said in a phone interview that the city could no longer ignore “the gender and racial makeup of this workforce and the nexus with our need to work our way out of the longstanding systemic failure to compensate this workforce fairly.”

Disregards Job’s Dangers

In a TV-and-radio ad campaign, launched after Mr. de Blasio made his remarks defending the pay disparity, the EMS locals blasted him for failing to appreciate the life-threatening dangers EMTs face on a daily basis and their history of line-of-duty deaths.  

In the interview shortly before he retired, Mr. Linn countered that the potential danger that city EMTs faced was not as important a factor when it came to setting their rate of compensation as how their salaries compared to people doing the same work in the private sector and whether pay was adequate in attracting qualified recruits to the FDNY EMS. “This first thing you have to do,” he said, “is make sure you can hire and retain. If you can’t do that, you’ve got a problem.”  

EMTs handle close to two-thirds of the city’s 911 calls for emergency medical attention, with the rest being responded to by ambulances dispatched from participating private-sector hospitals.

In 1996, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani transferred EMS  away from the municipal hospital system to the Fire Department. In the years since, the Emergency Medical Service has become a path for thousands of FDNY EMTs to be “promoted” to the far-better-paying Firefighter jobs.

There is a major disagreement between FDNY management and the EMS unions and their advocates on whether high turnover is a problem. While the department insists there is no reason for concern, the unions counter that 60 percent of the workforce has less than three years on the job, which they believe affects the quality of care patients are getting. 

Affects Quality of Care

“The New England Journal of Medicine did research that showed that the experience level of the practitioner has a direct correlation with the outcome for the patient,” said FDNY Paramedic Don Faeth, a former Local 2507 vice president. 

Glenn Corbett, an Associate Professor of Fire Science and Management at John Jay College, questioned Mr. Linn’s reliance on private-sector EMS pay comparisons to set the standard for FDNY EMTs. “Just because these hospitals pay so poorly for those life-saving jobs doesn’t mean the FDNY should follow,” he said. “And the reality is high turnover plagues both the public- and private-sector EMT workforces, which we know results in a brain drain that can’t help but have a direct impact on patient care in what we call that ‘golden hour’ when so much is determined about the final outcome for the patient.” 

“EMS should not be viewed as simply a transportation commodity nor merely a technical function,” said Dr. Kevin Munjal, chair of the New York Mobile Integrated Healthcare Association. “It is a practice of medicine that needs to be provided for by well-rested, well-trained and dedicated professionals committed to the care of individual patients and the improvement of health care for our population at large.”

Underpaid Nationally 

Last year Money Magazine reported that the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged the average national wage for EMTs at $16.05 an hour, 40 percent less than the average employed American makes per hour. 

As a consequence, having a second or third job to supplement their wages is common across the nation and adds to the profession’s high burnout and turnover rate, according to persons who track the industry.

“Many of our members have two or three jobs,” said Mr. Barzilay. “Our EMT starting salary is 35k, and after 5 years, 50k before taxes. Who can live on 50k in our city?”

He continued, “Our members have to either do a minimum of two-to-three overtime shifts a week or find a secondary employment just to survive. Our members are a paycheck away from living in a shelter or being homeless. Some of our members live out of their cars.”