Thirteen years ago, the state Court of Appeals upheld City Council legislation enacted over then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto granting uniformed status to Emergency Medical Service workers.
The president of EMS Local 2507 of District Council 37 at the time, Pat Bahnken, was not as effusive as some might have expected over this ruling by the state’s highest court, simply saying, “I think this will enable us to address some significant problems that we’re facing.”
“Address” is not a verb generally associated with breakthroughs, which was what union members were no doubt hoping for given the $22,000 gap that existed between maximum salary for Emergency Medical Technicians and Firefighters when the Council bill became law. But any doubt that Mr. Bahnken’s reaction didn’t capture the magnitude of the moment can be dispelled by current-day reality: that salary gap is now nearly $35,000.
It provides a powerful incentive for EMTs to take the promotion exam for Firefighter, particularly given the advantage they have over members of the public, since their list gives them preference in hiring even if they score 20 points below someone who is relegated to the open-competitive list. But the disparity remains a source of frustration for those not looking to leave ambulance work, as well as their union.
Primary Coronavirus Responders a Contract Edge?
When the Fire Department decided March 6 to bar firefighters from responding to medical calls involving fever, asthma, respiratory distress, anaphylactic shock and unconscious patients, instead having those handled strictly by EMS, current Local 2507 President Oren Barzilay viewed it not as another instance of favoring firefighters but a golden opportunity. He had just begun contract talks with the de Blasio administration, and the decision strengthened his argument that the health hazards posed by his members’ jobs demanded that their compensation be significantly improved.
As he explained it to this newspaper’s Bob Hennelly, the shift forced the FDNY “to acknowledge the risks and dangers we face every day from an infectious disease, which may not be as apparent as a wall of fire yet are still significant for our members.”
Asked about this March 10, city Labor Commissioner Renee Campion, who two days later would have her second negotiating session with Local 2507 and DC 37 Local 3621, which represents EMS officers, declined comment.
Her predecessor, Bob Linn, had argued that salaries for cops and firefighters were not pegged to the danger of their jobs, which was instead reflected in their being entitled to unlimited sick leave and the right to retire after 20 years [22 for those hired starting in 2010] and collect a full pension and receive free health coverage for the rest of their lives, even if they were in their early 40s and fit enough to start new careers.
This is not true, however, for EMTs, who are entitled to just 12 days of sick leave a year, although line-of-duty injuries they suffer are not counted against their sick bank, Mr. Barzilay told me in a March 11 phone interview. But, he added, in such cases EMS supervisors “call you every day, twice a day, to make sure you’re home.”
Those who exhaust their sick days are required to use vacation days for time lost to illness that is not considered line of duty. When coronavirus became an issue, he said, “That was our first concern. They told us that [days missed due to that disease] were non-chargeable,” meaning they would not be deducted from sick banks.
But, he said, the nature of the hazards his members face is less obvious than those confronted by cops and firefighters, making it harder for both city officials and the public to appreciate the risks EMTs must routinely take.
‘Can’t See Our Dangers’
Referring to the medical term for coronavirus, Mr. Barzilay said, “COVID 19 may be a new strain of disease, but we are facing others like it every day. We bring this stuff to our homes, we bring it to our families. And it’s a different scale because you can’t see communicable diseases the way you can a bank robber or a burning building. We come in contact with 4,000 to 5,000 people a day. We don’t know the background of our patients, and sometimes they don’t tell us what’s really wrong with them.”
Told that Mr. Linn’s view that salaries are not based on job dangers would be shared by at least some arbitrators, the Local 2507 leader insisted that the wage disparity was too glaring to ignore, regardless of how successful such arguments might have been in the past. He said that the salary for a rookie Firefighter was just “$3,000 less than a top-tier EMT,” whose maximum pay is $50,604.
“And their top salary is $85,000,” Mr. Barzilay added, making it easy to understand why so many EMTs look to pass the promotion exam for Firefighter at their first opportunity.
The high turnover when lists from that exam are in use means a good portion of the EMT cadre is first- and second-year workers. For them, he said, pay is low enough that “we are really working at a McDonald’s wage—$16 an hour. Where is the justice?”
As structural fires have continued to decline, medical calls have steadily increased, exceeding more than 1.5 million emergency runs last year. And, Mr. Barzilay said, there are certification requirements for his members for which there is nothing comparable for cops and firefighters, including continuing medical education courses and having to renew their EMT licenses every three years.
And they must work at least 25 years before qualifying for full pensions. Mr. Barzilay said that the pension system his members belong to, the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, is also stingier in granting disability pensions to EMTs than the Fire Pension Fund is for firefighters.
“We have a few members who were denied three-quarters,” he said, referring to the portion of final average salary granted to those who retire on line-of-duty disability pensions. “Even when a judge has found in favor of our members, NYCERS can still reject them for a three-quarters,” since judges can remand cases to the pension system for further consideration but generally can’t order that disability allowances be granted.
And, Mr. Barzilay said, pursuing such cases in court typically costs $10,000 or more, and “our members don’t have that kind of money.”
Although both EMS unions have their own bargaining certificates, too often in the past they have been forced to accept the wage increases negotiated by DC 37, which typically are slightly below those negotiated by the police and fire unions.
Mr. Bahnken said that in both the contracts he negotiated, he was able to get the “uniformed pattern” for EMS. But, he acknowledged, the salary gap between EMTs and Firefighters has continued to widen over the past decade because “unfortunately there is a lack of willingness on the other side of the table to address these and other issues and ameliorate a vast amount of problems.”
Mr. Barzilay is hoping that will change. Speaking a day prior to the union’s second bargaining session with Ms. Campion, he declined to specify the size of the pay increase the union was seeking but said it was after “comparable wages. They don’t have to be identical.”
But its aspirations are bumping up against the city’s long history of pattern bargaining, and the reality that EMTs, when salary relationships got fleshed out among the uniformed unions during the late 1960s, were still employees of the Health and Hospitals Corporation and did not have hiring and training standards comparable to what existed for the uniformed forces.
The Law Enforcement Employees Benevolent Association was able to close the pay gap between its Environmental Police Officers and city cops over the past decade with two contracts through the combination of an arbitration victory and an extension of members’ work hours in return for raises above the pattern. They still fell significantly short of parity because the arbitrator for the first contract, while noting the upgraded training they had received to guard the city’s watershed areas in the aftermath of 9/11 exceeded that for Police Officers, said they could not expect to gain in one case all the benefits NYPD officers had accumulated over decades of bargaining.
Mr. Barzilay said improvements in sick-leave rights were “something we can discuss,” as was a pension upgrade. But he made clear that his priority in the contract talks was to make major inroads on salary.
“We’re not trying to circumvent pattern bargaining,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is get away from it.”
The mixed success that Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch has had in his numerous attempts to do the same thing could stand as a cautionary tale for Local 2507. But Mr. Barzilay insisted, “I feel optimistic. When you have the City Council behind you, when you have state legislators behind you, then EMS is on the map.”
Mayor Has the Leverage
It didn’t matter to him that the Council had been fully behind EMTs nearly two decades ago, yet its granting them uniformed status had barely made a dent at the bargaining table. And it was just about this time last year that Mayor de Blasio ignited a furor by defending the pay gap with Firefighters by saying, “Their work is different.”
“This is a movement,” Mr. Barzilay said. “I know the Mayor is watching. I’m just hoping that the Mayor does the right thing.”