Op-Ed | New York City needs to treat EMS workers so much better

Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) lift a patient that was identified to have coronavirus disease (COVID-19) into an ambulance while wearing protective gear, as the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in New York City, New York, U.S., March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Stefan Jeremiah

In the past year, it has been hard to imagine someone more essential than an EMS worker.

In those dark and early days of COVID-19, one of the eerie markers of the pandemic’s presence in our city was the haunting sound of ambulance sirens, non-stop, morning and night.

Behind those sirens were EMS workers, who were courageously saving lives while risking their own. They were first responders working double overtime, pulling long, harrowing shifts and enduring lasting emotional traumas while many of us quarantined safely in the comfort of our homes. Many EMS workers indeed lost their lives, and many more got sick. So did their families.

Given their sacrifice, and how crucial these workers were to our collective survival, you would think they would be among some of the highest-paid civil servants in this city. The reality could not be further from the truth.

An EMS worker gets paid as low as $33,320 in their first year of service. For a full-time worker, that amounts to just barely above minimum wage. EMS workers, who are overwhelmingly Black and Brown and majority women, often work two or more jobs just to put food on the table — and inexplicably are at times shamed for it. They also disproportionately commute from far corners of the outer boroughs, the only neighborhoods their wage permits them to afford.

There’s no other way to say it: The way New York City treats our EMS workers is shameful, if not borderline discriminatory.

We have a chance to right this wrong. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the City merging the FDNY and EMS into one agency, in a well-meaning attempt to streamline city services. While the goal was that workers from both agencies would eventually reach pay parity, the disparity in pay has only grown, more than tripling. To be clear, no one should question whether FDNY workers deserve every penny of what they make. They are in the business of self-sacrifice and saving lives, something that we can never really adequately compensate, as tragedies like 9/11 have proven. But so too are EMS workers, yet they are treated as second-class.

The best way to achieve pay parity for EMS workers is to give them their own independent agency, where they are not an afterthought, but the main show. They need their own commissioner and their own agency built to support their work, negotiate with their union over their salaries, and troubleshoot and coordinate when the next citywide emergency hits. They need an agency that can prioritize taking care of the workers who take care of us, including access to quality mental health care.

Part of responsible governance is acknowledging when something we try simply does not work. We’ve seen enough over the last 25 years to know that the original goals behind merging FDNY and EMS did not materialize. It’s time to undo the merger, and give EMS workers the representation, funding, and professionalism they deserve.

As the dust settles from COVID-19, after all we’ve been through and all we have sacrificed, it would be a shame if no lessons were learned. We now know all too well how quickly an emergency can render New Yorkers vulnerable. We need to invest in the caretakers. We need to invest in EMS.

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