The pandemic exposed terrifying new levels of risk in the line of duty Emergency Medical Service workers. Now, after fighting for pay parity with the NYPD and FDNY for decades, the two unions representing municipal EMS workers say the time has come for the city to give their workers equitable pay as uniformed officers.
But the unions are stuck in limbo waiting for the city to start negotiations after their contract expired in July 2022.
“Our danger cannot be seen with the naked eye with the communicable diseases that we are exposed to on a daily basis. So finally, COVID put that into perspective,” said EMS Local 2507 President Oren Barzilay.
In the unions’ favor, a federal investigation and pending federal class action lawsuit has bolstered their case for improved pay and benefits.
FDNY EMS Local 2507 and UEMSO Local 3621, the two unions representing New York’s uniformed emergency medical technicians, paramedics and EMS officers, filed a lawsuit in Manhattan District Court against the city and the FDNY alleging discriminatory pay and employment practices on behalf of 25 members in December.
The lawsuit stems from an investigation by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that concluded in 2021 the city has improperly treated and compensated EMS first responders based on race and gender. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit or contract negotiations.
“We believe it’s discrimination because out of the first responders — police and fire and EMS — we are the highest ratio of women and minorities, and yet they keep our salaries down, and they keep our benefits down compared to police and fire,” said Vincent Variale, president of EMS officer union Local 3621.
What the unions say won’t boost their wages is the recently ratified District Council 37 contract that would raise the minimum wage for city workers from $15 to $18 per hour. Local 2507 and Local 3621 are affiliates of DC 37, the city’s largest municipal worker union, but the deal would not help their lowest paid EMT workers, who make a starting salary that is just over $18 per hour, but still below the other uniformed first responders.
The starting NYPD salary is $42,500, which increases to $85,292 within five and a half years. FDNY firefighters begin at $43,904, which increases to $110,293 with fringe pay in that same timeline. Entry level pay for an FDNY EMT starts between $39,386 and $47,016, but is just $59,534 after five years.
At issue is the city’s pattern bargaining process, which simplifies negotiations with the many municipal unions into different sets of workers: one for uniformed officers and one for civilian employees.
In 2001, the City Council passed legislation that asserts FDNY EMS workers’ status as uniformed workers.
“22 year years later, they refused to deal with us as a uniform service, and they constantly give us the civilian pattern,” Barzilay said.
On top of the salary requests, the unions say that sick leave is a major point of contention. Unlike FDNY, NYPD and sanitation workers who get unlimited paid sick leave, EMS gets 12 days of sick leave a year like most civilian agencies.
“Look, we take care of sick people. We have a very dangerous job, and health-wise, you’re carrying people up and down the stairs, you are dealing with a lot of illnesses. You get sick, you get hurt,” said Variale. “Many members, when this happens, fall off payroll. When they fall off payroll, they not only lose their pay, they lose their health insurance for them and their family.”
The disparities in pay and benefits has led to severe under-staffing in the city’s ambulance workforce.
“We are currently short a little over a hundred paramedics, and we could use probably an additional 200 EMTs because we don’t simply have enough ambulances on the road,” Barzilay said.
The under-staffing causes safety problems for EMS officers. Normally when lieutenants head out to the scene of an emergency, they would be assigned a backup officer to manage the situation from the station. But lieutenants are so short staffed that this often isn’t possible, so the field lieutenant is on his or her own.
“When there’s less of us there, it increases the danger level. EMS is assaulted every day numerous times,” Variale said.
The longer the unions encounter delays, the longer their members are at risk, they say. Barzilay said that he would be amenable to phasing in pay increases in a multi-step time process, but the important thing is that it agrees to bargain with the EMS workers as uniformed officers.
“If not, we will push forward with the lawsuit and obtain what we deserve through litigation,” Variable said.