Op-ed: Congestion pricing could worsen EMS attrition

Oren Barzilay | October 4, 2023

Published in Crain’s New York Business

Congestion pricing, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed Central Business District tolling program, appears to be close to reality after many years of debate. Gov. Kathy Hochul said it will “ensure the city’s long-term success.”

However, with proposals ranging from $5 to $23 per vehicle entering the zone from 60th Street south to the Battery in peak hours, congestion pricing would bring financial ruin to thousands of New York’s medical first responders employed by the FDNY Emergency Medical Services.

EMS workers’ horrifically low pay, for both emergency medical technicians and paramedics, has been an ongoing and unaddressed crisis for years. They are responsible for protecting the lives of their fellow New Yorkers but are paid only a fraction of the city’s other front-line first responders. The stark difference is about 40% to 50% less. An EMT starting salary is $39,386.

Given this and the devastating cost of living in New York, many EMS members are forced to live outside of the city and commute into work.

Unless there are exemptions for New York’s medical first responders, few if any EMTs or paramedics would consider working in station houses in the pricing zone. Once a driver enters that area – BAM – you’re hit with the MTA’s surcharge, which is far above our pay grade.

New York City’s EMS service is the busiest in the world, responding to millions of medical emergencies. In 2022, FDNY EMS responded to 1,580,871 medical emergencies — a rather large 100,000 increase over the prior year.

Let’s consider a price of $23 to enter Manhattan. If an EMT works five days a week, earning $18.93 per hour, congestion pricing would equate to 1.5 hours of each day’s pay, or $115 per week. That doesn’t include paying for gas or tolls, just to make it into work.

Either way, this is simply too much for what EMTs are earning. We simply won’t be able to afford to protect New York City.

Already attrition exceeds 30% after three years and 50% after five years, due to the high stress and low wages, which force most to moonlight with second jobs just to continue serving the people of a city they themselves can’t afford to live in.

After going through the academy, and receiving on-the-job experience, eventually medical service responders recognize the uncompetitive pay and poor working conditions. Many leave for other cities or even jobs with private firms, where they can easily make $20,000 to $30,000 more per year.

New York spends tens of thousands of dollars training each EMS professional but compensates them more like teenagers on a weekly allowance. It’s why our force is constantly experiencing massive job turnover. 

Congestion pricing without exemptions for FDNY EMS workers would place an even greater financial burden on individuals already struggling. It has the likelihood of further harming recruitment and drastically increasing resignations.

The dedicated women and men of EMS — and the great citizens of New York we are sworn to protect — deserve better. Congestion pricing will threaten the ability of our city’s true lifesavers to continue doing their job. After decades of discussion and debate on these topics, it’s about time to make the positive impact of the FDNY EMS more central to the strategic planning and budgeting of our city.

Oren Barzilay is the president of FDNY EMS Local 2507 representing the fire department’s EMTs, paramedics and fire protection inspectors.