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Proposed Salary Boosts Would Do Little to Help Struggling EMTs, Labor Leaders Say

The head of one union representing FDNY emergency medical technicians and paramedics said he won’t accept the mayor’s contract blueprint.

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EMTs respond to a person in distress on 125th Street in Harlem, July 20, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

One group of labor leaders isn’t cheering Mayor Eric Adams’ recent contract deal with municipal workers: the heads of the two unions representing thousands of emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

A proposed boost to the minimum wage for city employees to $18, up from the current $15, would mean that many of these front-line emergency workers would end up near the very bottom of the city pay scale unless they get a long-sought-after raise.

Starting pay for emergency medical technicians, frontline responders who are among the city’s lowest-paid workers, is currently equivalent to $18.94 an hour.

The head of one union says that as it is, the city is struggling to staff its ambulances. 

“It’s frustrating. And that’s why we have a retention issue. We lose five to 10 people every week that are resigning,” said Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507, in a phone interview last week.

“Our members, they’re hurting,” Barzilay said. They leave the department for better-paid work at the police department, sanitation department or even Costco, he said. 

Anthony Almojera, the vice president of Uniformed EMS Officers Union Local 3621, said he’s lost eight members to suicide in the last three years, and that some members are homeless. 

Local 2507 and Local 3621, the unions that represent EMTs, are not part of the tentative collective bargaining agreement reached by Adams and District Council 37 earlier this month, which provides for a raise of 16.21% over the next five years plus a $3,000 upfront bonus. 

Some city workers would stand to benefit from the hourly wage boost: School crossing guards, for example, currently earn $15.45 an hour.

The DC37 agreement also includes a test run for remote work — something that would not benefit EMTs, who must work in person.

An FDNY EMS worker outside of Brooklyn Hospital Center in Downtown Brooklyn on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Traditionally, either District Council 37 or the United Federation of Teachers sets the standard for pattern bargaining that other municipal unions follow, because they are the largest city unions. 

But Almojera told THE CITY the DC37 deal is a nonstarter for his EMS officer members.

“Please make it clear that I don’t agree, that Local 3621 does not agree to any pattern set, because our members are so far behind,” he said, noting that the gap between EMS and FDNY lieutenants is roughly $30,000.

“So while they can set a uniform pattern that the city can try and hold to other unions, that’s their business — but when it comes to us, we are bleeding. You can’t apply a Band-Aid to this,” Almojera added.

The majority of EMS workers in the city, Barzilay and Almojera said, are women and people of color. 

Members Are Hurting

Other uniformed unions tend to be especially combative in union negotiations, often going into arbitration instead of negotiating with the city. That process has led to extra boosts for veteran police officers — at the expense of newer hires.

In 2005, the Police Benevolent Association successfully arbitrated raises for police officers by agreeing to give-backs that included lowering starting salaries by more than $10,000 for cops who hadn’t yet been hired. The PBA, the city’s largest police union, is currently undergoing statewide arbitration over its contract, which expired in 2017.

Barzilay of Local 2507 declined to say if the union would try to break away from the pattern through arbitration, in order to achieve parity with the fire department. Almojera, of Local 3621, said: “I’m just gonna say that all options are on the table right now.”

Both locals are still far away from settling their contracts, which expired in July 2022. The United Federation of Teachers, the city’s second-largest union, is expected to bargain next.

Neither EMS union has had a bargaining session with the Adams administration yet.

“I don’t know who the city is gonna call first, but I know that our men and women are in desperate need of an increase, with inflation being as high as 8% this past year,” Barzilay said. 

“They’d like to see a raise so they can feed themselves, their families. I understand there’s a pattern, that the city has a way of negotiating with certain unions first, but as the lowest-paid agency, we would love to go and have an opportunity to fix these problems already.”

Spokespeople for City Hall and the fire department were not immediately available for comment.

Class-Action Lawsuit

The gaps in pay between EMTs and uniformed firefighters are so wide that in December 2021 the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) determined that the city “discriminated against current and former first responders of the FDNY’s EMS, based on race and sex … with respect to pay, benefits and terms and conditions of employment” and urged City Hall to remediate the issues.

The EEOC’s findings were the basis for a class-action lawsuit that several unions representing EMS workers filed against the city and the FDNY last month on behalf of 25 members. 

“The FDNY is committed to fair and equitable pay practices. The case is under review,” a city Law Department spokesman said in a statement to the Daily News at the time.

The pay discrepancies, Barzilay and Almojera say, exist because their members are compensated as civilian workers, despite their status as uniformed officers, like firefighters and police officers, and despite facing many of the same risks on the job. In 2020, City Council passed a resolution for EMS to be paid the same as firefighters, but the city has not taken action, as noted in the class-action suit.

Among EMS workers who have died on the frontlines is Allison Russo, 61, an FDNY EMS lieutenant and Local 3621 member, who was knifed to death while on the job in Queens in September. 

“Members are issued bullet-proof vests when they graduate from the academy,” Almojera said. “That alone puts me in the rank [of uniform]. It’s no different. It’s just as dangerous.”

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