What we owe our EMTs and paramedics


As the locus of the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic this past spring, New York City became an epicenter of disaster as its medical first responders were called upon to step up, answering a record number of 911 calls for urgent aid.

New York City’s FDNY EMS workers proudly rose to the challenge and, according to a recent study led by Dr. David Prezant of Montefiore Medical Center, the FDNY’s chief medical officer and Dr. Michael Weiden of NYU Langone/FDNY Medical Officer, uniformed members of the FDNY overall were 15 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general public. More staggering was the finding that FDNY EMS workers were an additional five times more likely than FDNY’s firefighters to contract COVID.

With medical experts now warning of another COVID surge, we are imploring our government leaders to focus on rapidly acting to implement greater protections for the 4,000 members of the EMS, who are risking their lives and potentially their family’s health and well-being with every emergency call they make.

Paramedics and EMTs knew they were signing up for perilous, underpaid work, but they couldn’t have anticipated it would be quite this hazardous to their health.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, approximately 1.8 million 911 emergency calls were made to the FDNY. Of those, more than 80%, or 1.6 million, were EMS-related. In 2020, those numbers will surely be higher.

To move forward, we must first recognize that FDNY EMS wages start at about $16.95 per hour, or about what one can make as an entry-level fast-food worker. In New York, that is considered poverty wages.

EMS professionals earn about 40% less than our police and firefighting peers. Our members’ low incomes often mean they must live 50 to 100 miles away and work second or even third jobs in order to continue serving the great people of New York City. In contrast, members of the uniformed EMS in the city of Boston make just 2% less than their police and fire department peers.

At the root of the problem is the fact that, while EMTs and paramedics are an integral part of a para-military organization, the FDNY, and are required to wear uniforms, they are denied uniformed employment status. This means that for contract and health-safety purposes, including for line-of-duty-death, the city does not consider EMS lives to be the equal of fellow first responders in police and firefighting roles, or those in the city Sanitation Department. This is an accident of history, and it’s a cruel one indeed.

Third, when one of our members is too sick or injured to work, he or she has only very limited sick time. After that, they are out of luck, unless they qualify for state workman’s compensation, which was never built to address the various illness, viruses, contamination and other dangers faced in our line of work.

Our reality is that EMS’ life-saving work is constantly taken for granted by an unappreciative city leadership. Saying “thanks,” or offering parades, only goes so far when you can’t house or feed your family in the city that you protect.

And it shouldn’t be lost on us that supposedly progressive city and state leaders have allowed a startling and nearly incomprehensible disparity in pay to exist between the mostly woman and minority staffed EMS and other first responders at the NYPD, FDNY and DSNY.

FDNY EMS professionals are exposed each time they enter a private residence, nursing home, medical facility or respond to a street corner emergency, leaving them and their families susceptible. Now is the time to finally address this inequity in wages, and simultaneously implement uniform health, safety and workplace protections.

Ten months into the pandemic, a lot is not yet known about the virus, but we do know that long-term effects of COVID can include diminished cardiovascular and respiratory function, slower mental processing speed, brain fog and other mental illnesses which occur in 20% of COVID survivors, and generally degrade an individual’s quality of life.

There may be more underlying effects waiting to surface years, or even decades, later. Some may think it’s all in a day’s pay for the EMS workforce, but the risks of the job are too damn high, and the pay is simply not enough.

EMS deserves the cooperation of the city and state leadership now — before the end of 2020, before a vaccine rolls around and the sense of urgency passes us by — to provide its workforce, charged with this difficult and hazardous role as our front line first responders, compensation level commensurate with the risks they take.

If we can’t even do that, all the applause in world will be for naught.

Barzilay is a 20-plus year EMS veteran and president of FDNY EMS Local 2507, which represents New York City’s EMT’s, paramedics and fire inspectors.