By Cindy Mizaku
Working up to 20 hours a day, Lauren Hartnett, an executive board member of EMS Union Local 2507, has visited dozens of fire departments across New York City, and has given out food, sanitizing supplies and surgical masks to over 4,000 exhausted emergency workers fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines.
Since early March, EMS Local 2507 requested that the city make an alternative work schedule with 12-hour shifts alongside 16-hour shifts, giving emergency workers time to rest and recover. It was the highlight of Hartnett’s week when she found that the new work schedule will go into effect on May 3.
Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics staff numbers across the city have dropped by 20 percent since March, as more emergency medical services (EMS) workers self-quarantine or fall ill. But union leaders of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), who represent EMS workers, said that understaffing, overwork and underpayment have existed since long before the outbreak hit the city, and the pandemic only heightened financial insecurity and health risks that come with the job.
“I would see people running themselves into the ground,” Hartnett said. “I see people leave. I’ve worked with people who I have loved working with, and then I’ve watched them leave because the pay wasn’t what it should’ve been, and I wanted to do something to fix it.”
EMS Locals 2507 and 3621 have advocated for pay parity for the lowest paid first responders as EMS is considered a separate division within the fire department.
Working 40 hours as a paramedic and 35 hours as a paramedic program coordinator at LaGuardia’s Community College every week, Matthew Smith said he was fortunate that the hospital he works for provided him with a hotel room. Not many EMS workers have received alternative housing, he said. His wife has an underlying medical condition, and as someone who is at greater risk of contracting the virus, moving out of his home was a sacrifice he made for her.
“The overwhelming emotion I feel in thinking about the current living situation is just gratitude,” Smith said. “The nature of this job was always that we were willing to risk ourselves in the meaning of taking care of and protecting other people.”
In the first four weeks of the pandemic, the FDNY did not provide alternative housing options for EMS workers despite EMS Officers Union Local 3621’s requests to do so, Anthony Almojera, the vice president of the union, said.
“If we don’t take care of the EMTs and paramedics not only monetarily, but physically and emotionally … we’re going to lose them,” Almojera said.
The FDNY EMS has responded to upwards of 6,000 medical calls daily since COVID-19 spread throughout the city. To provide relief, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent 250 ambulances and 500 EMTs to the city.
Representing 535 EMS lieutenants and captains, Vincent Variale, the president of Union Local 3621, said that EMS has had a staffing shortage before the crisis, the result of years of underfunding. The field has lost personnel as workers moved on to different jobs or became firefighters.
“You have an understaffed EMS system who now has less people coming to work because they’re out sick, positive, or in quarantine,” Variale said. “It creates a lot more stress on the current workforce working out there — mentally, physically, emotionally.”
EMS workers, many of whom have been working double shifts for weeks, are frequently exposed to trauma and death. Variale is concerned that many in the young workforce will face PTSD when the crisis dies down.
Joe Itzkowitz, a critical care paramedic in the 911 system and the private sector, mentors students and leads the instructional staff at Emergency Care Systems. He also volunteers in his community and checks in on friends and family.
“We are pushing through, and we’re trying to continue making EMTs and getting more people out into the workforce,” Itzkowitz, who has worked in the EMS field for almost 20 years, said.
Many people are working longer shifts on the frontlines because the EMS field does not have enough personnel, he said.
“Unfortunately, I see a lot of my EMS brothers and sisters who are starting to feel burnt out,” Itzkowitz said. “Anyone in EMS is doing it because they care. No one’s in it for the pride, the glory or the money. So anyone who’s doing this is because their heart is wanting to help other people, but then sometimes it takes too much.”
EMS base salaries range from $35,000 to $40,000 a year, less than those of firefighters and police officers.
“Our pay is so low, many members can’t afford to stay home and live off the base pay. So a lot of members come to work sick or injured, so they can make the overtime,” Variale said. “Otherwise, they can’t afford to live.”
When the mayor said that EMS workers are different from firefighters, the only difference Variale sees is the make-up of the workforce. While the EMS field is made up of 56 percent minorities and 30 percent women, the fire department is made up of 87 percent white men.
EMT Frankie Smith has been self-quarantining for three weeks after being diagnosed with COVID-19. He said that because of staff shortages, a member had to cover his shifts.
“I think the fire department EMTs would be in a better position if they were probably paid more adequately, so then we would be better staffed,” Smith said. “For an event like this, I think that would be the best thing.”
The EMS field has a high turnover rate, losing about 68 percent of its workforce in the last four years, Almojera said. Since 75 percent of the city’s emergency workers have less than five years of experience, survival rates and positive patient outcomes are suffering, Variale said.
The city has had to adjust protocol for the number of EMTs and paramedics on ambulances as the 311 system is overwhelmed, Elina Beyn, the director of student services at the Center for Allied Health Education (CAHE), said.
“It is a time that no one expected; it is something that’s unpredictable,” she said. “But at the same time, it is … what we train students to do. We train them to be healthcare professionals, to deal with such issues and to step up in times of need.”
Because call volumes are so high, standard procedures for cardiac emergencies shifted as there are not enough ambulances, Tina Petronio, a hospital paramedic and an instructor at CAHE, said.
“The fire department EMS is extremely underpaid,” Petronio said. “It’s crazy that I do the same job — we’re both New York City paramedics, we did the same schooling, we take the same tests, we work within the same system and because I work for a hospital, I’m making eight dollars more an hour.”
FDNY EMT Robert Koemm said that he is appreciative of his fire department’s union, Local 2507, for offering the support of representatives and coordinators who have also gone through stressful shifts and cared for high-risk patients.
“We have senior members that are all available just to speak to, get counseled on, and have somebody to lean on,” Koemm said. “I had a tough call where one of my friends passed, and the union president reached out to me personally on his own terms.”
EMS union leaders, Hartnett, Almojera and Variale hope that through their membership they could continue to represent the city’s hard-working first responders while strengthening EMS service.
“I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to do what I do and fight for my members who are working three jobs, or who are single parents, or trying to go to school and better themselves,” Hartnett said. “I’m trying to make this a career for them where you get on FDNY EMS and you’re set.”