NEW YORK, NY — Two EMS unions fighting to increase pay and benefits for their members filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing the city and FDNY of withholding critical information for their case.
The unions accused the city and Fire Department of ignoring or wrongfully denying multiple Freedom of Information Law requests, according to the suit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court.
Emergency Medical Services Locals 2507 and 3621 — which represent city EMTs, paramedics, fire inspectors and EMS officers — want information on the pay, rank, gender, race and discipline history on employees across several different uniformed agencies.
They also want the same information — especially the disciplinary records — for the members of their own unions.
The two labor groups argue that their members — 30% female and 56% black, Latino and Asian — are wrongly denied the same pay and benefits as other city workers in comparable titles, and are subjected to more frequent discipline.
“We are seeking to do a statistical analysis of the data to prove what we already know to be true: EMS is substantially underpaid and undervalued as compared to other uniformed counterparts,” said Yetta Kurland, who filed the Article 78 lawsuit on behalf of the unions.
The lawsuit cites the city, its Department of Citywide Administrative Services and the Fire Department for violating the Freedom of Information Law.
A city Law Department spokesman said the suit was under review.
“We will respond accordingly,” the spokesman said.
The two unions filed FOILs on May 11, June 19, June 22 and Sept. 8, according to court papers.
The requests sought employment history from Jan. 1, 2007 to the present for employees of the FDNY, the Sanitation Department, the NYPD, the Department of Correction and Department of Building inspectors.
The unions also submitted FOILs for all FDNY disciplinary records from Jan. 1, 1996 through Dec. 31, 2016, as well as complaints filed with the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office for the same time period.
Two were ignored, and two were denied by the city, which said it can’t release such personal information on municipal employees, according to the lawsuit.
“Mayor de Blasio has stated many times that he is for fairness and equality,” said Local 3621 head Vincent Variale.
“EMS receives far less support, promotional opportunity and tens of thousands less in salary than other city counterparts, many in predominantly male departments that are recognized as uniformed. So we think it’s time for some fairness and equality for EMS,” he said.
The city’s Emergency Medical Services agency merged with the FDNY in 1996, and since then has been treated by the city as civilian staff — even though its members work in a similar capacity to firefighters and cops and are called on in major emergencies, including terrorism incidents and other disasters.
The unions have long argued that their members, which include fire inspectors, should be viewed as a uniformed workforce, which would accord better pay and benefits in alignment with what cops and firefighters earn.
Currently, the base starting pay for an EMT is $33,320, according to the city’s website. After five years, it jumps to $47,685. Paramedics start at $45,000 and jump to $61,000.
In contrast, the starting pay for a firefighter is $45,000 — but after five years it tops $110,000.
Yet the EMS workload — handling nearly 5,000 911 calls every day — is one of the most demanding in the city.
The department is chronically understaffed and often has to force mandatory overtime on members to cover sick days and vacations, especially in the summer.
Members get 12 sick days a year — the amount given to civilian city workers — even though they spend their days treating people with illnesses like the flu, bronchitis and more, the unions point out.
Uniformed workers, however, get unlimited sick leave.
While the fight with the city over uniformed status has dragged on for years, the EMS unions’ renewed their push after the tragic March 16 death of EMT Yadira Arroyo, a mother of five boys who was mowed down by a crazed patient who stole her ambulance.
After 14 years on the job, Arroyo, 44, earned a base salary of $48,000. After overtime, she took home $66,000.
Although Arroyo was killed on the job, it took a special dispensation from Mayor de Blasio to get her family a line-of-duty death benefit — one year of her pay.
The families of fallen firefighters, cops and other uniformed workers receive a line-of-duty benefit automatically.
Last month, the two unions secured state legislation that gives EMS members line-of-duty death benefits so workers no longer have to rely on mayoral discretion, said Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507.
“This law is one more example of how we are recognized by the state as a uniformed service, yet the city refuses to acknowledge that,” Barzilay said.
He said the unions quest for parity was not to disparage the work of the FDNY and other uniformed agencies, but to convince the city that it’s time to “level the playing field” for fire inspectors and EMS.
De Blasio — who chided city agencies to be speedy and transparent on FOIL requests when he was public advocate — has been criticized in recent years for trying to micromanage the process.
In 2015 he issued a mandate to city attorneys instructing them to forward all FOIL requests that “reflect directly on the mayor” to his lawyers.
The mayor said it was an effort to streamline FOIL responses — not delay or obfuscate answers.
But the city has tried to dodge questions about its workforce before — even though such information on municipal employees is available online to the taxpaying public.
In a prior lawsuit brought by Kurland on behalf of Communication Workers of America, a judge ruled that details of race, gender, pay and more were fodder for FOILS.
“We brought that action in 2014 and the court granted it in 2016. It took us that long to get public records from the city that are supposed to be publicly available,” Kurland said.