Expiring Before Retiring: EMS Pay Gap Leads Some to Work to Death

Low Salaries Limit Pension Allowances

By Bob Hennelly | July 21, 2021

Earlier this month, the FDNY honored the life of Emergency Medical Technician Richard Seaberry, 63, with a departmental funeral paying tribute to his 30-year career of helping thousands of New Yorkers when they needed help the most.

At the time of his death, Mr. Seaberry was in the middle of moving with his family to Atlanta, where he hoped to retire and spend time with his granddaughter.

Had to Delay Retirement

But according to colleagues and the union that represented him, he was like hundreds of other veteran EMTs whose relatively low salaries, compared to other city uniformed employees, kept him working long past the time when he qualified for a full pension.

Mr. Seaberry, who died from the coronavirus in March 2020, was also a 9/11 World Trade Center responder, whose family told the Daily News he had continued to suffer with respiratory issues from his work on the pile. Yet the father of two kept working until September 2019, when took a medical leave.

“Yes, for a guy like Rich, who never went beyond that EMT level, where they are making that lower salary, it’s very hard to walk away from the job after 25 years, especially if you want to continue living in New York,” said Emergency Medical Service Capt. John Burke, who knew him his entire career, which centered in Queens.

Mr. Burke said Mr. Seaberry worked overnight tours, most recently out of Fort Totten in Bayside, where his decades of experience made him an anchor for a job that was increasingly filled by inexperienced EMTs, some of whom quickly sought promotion to the better-paying job of Firefighter.

Experience Matters

“We know from all of the medical research white papers and the statistics, the more exposure to that kind of experience, the better you are going to be at delivering emergency medical care and the little nuances required for an effective and rapid intervention,” he said. “If they [newer hires] are working with people that haven’t learned all those lessons, they can’t in turn teach them.”

Captain Burke, a 33-year EMS veteran, said that years of practical experience makes all the difference during the so-called “Platinum 10,” explaining, “Especially with a trauma that’s going to require a surgery, if we can be off the scene within 10 minutes of our arrival with a critical patient, the chance of their survival is that much better.” 

Over the arc of the two men’s careers, the job became increasingly challenging in Queens as one hospital and emergency room after another closed.

“So, where we are in Queens, right around the corner from H+H’s Queens Hospital, in that neighborhood alone we lost Mary Immaculate Hospital and St. Joseph’s Hospital,” Mr. Burke said. In addition, he said, the borough also lost St. John’s Hospital and Parkway Hospital.

Traveling Farther

“The loss of hospital beds and loss of those emergency rooms is a real stressor for us, because you are traveling a greater distance to get a patient to the ER, which leaves your coverage area exposed with fewer ambulances. And then there’s the travel time back for the units,” he said. “It’s a real issue out on the Rockaways, where they lost Peninsula Hospital and now there is only one hospital serving that entire area.”

“For three decades, EMT Seaberry bravely served the City of New York, responding to thousands of medical emergencies,” said Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro,” in a statement. “He was there so often during New Yorkers’ most-desperate moments. So many lives continue to be lost to COVID-19. Our department has now lost 10 extraordinary people who dedicated their lives to serving others in the FDNY.”

Mr. Seaberry’s not living to see retirement is, sadly, not unique.

Such a case touched City Council Member I. Daneek Miller personally with the virus-related death of EMS Instructor Idris Bey, 60, another 9/11 WTC veteran who was an EMS Instructor when he was felled by the virus.

“We grew up together,” he said. “We converted to Islam together, we studied together.”

‘Couldn’t Get 3/4s’

He said Mr. Bey started his civil-service career with the Department of Correction, then spent 27 years with EMS. “He was in 9/11 but couldn’t get the three-quarters pension to retire on, like police and fire get to do, so he continued to do what he loved as an EMS instructor at Fort Totten,” Mr. Miller said, referring to a disability pension worth 75 percent of final average salary.

The Queens Council Member, who chairs the Committee on the Civil Service and Labor, has long been a leading advocate for EMTs getting pay parity with Firefighters.

On Dec. 23, the same day that EMS workers began receiving the coronavirus vaccine, the city confirmed the COVID- linked death of Evelyn Ford, a 27-year EMS Dispatcher who was 58.

“She was hanging on hoping to get to 30 years,” said Oren Barzilay, president of DC 37’s Local 2507, which represents EMTs, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors, and was her former partner.

Victims of Pay Gap

Ms. Ford was assigned to the Emergency Medical Dispatch unit, which coordinates the FDNY’s response to major emergencies from serious fires to mass-casualty events.

At the time of her death, Mr. Barzilay texted, “She took pride in her work, she was dedicated, professional and well-respected by her colleagues.”

During a July 20 phone interview, he said the plight of those three union members underscored the consequences of pay gap with other emergency-responder titles.

“When you have such low pay and your pension is 50 percent of this minimum [annual] wage—let’s say $50,000—the state gives you half that, so we have members retiring on $2,000 a month,” Mr. Barzilay said.