von essen

‘GIVE THEM SOMETHING BETTER’: Former Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen, who considered creating a hybrid title of Firefighter/EMT that could have ended the large salary gap between the two jobs but wasn’t able to implement it, said that while it would take more than one contract to address the disparity, ‘I would say first thing is give them something better’ than the 12 days of medical leave they are entitled to, while cops and firefighters are allowed unlimited sick leave. 

When Emergency Medical Service Local 2507 of District Council 37 begins contract bargaining with the de Blasio administration Feb. 18, its strongest argument for a raise well in excess of the established pattern will be the testimony three weeks earlier by Chief of EMS Lillian Bonsignore that there are ambulance-crew shortages whenever a promotion list for Firefighter depletes her ranks.

She told a City Council hearing that over a four-year period once the promotion list is established, EMS loses 1,200 Emergency Medical Technicians to the Firefighter ranks. You only have to do the math to understand why: top salary for EMTs is currently $50,604, while maximum pay for Firefighters is $85,292.

A year ago, outgoing city Labor Commissioner Bob Linn said that the pay difference by itself did not warrant an adjustment in EMT salaries because they were in line with what was being paid to EMTs in the private sector. He affirmed his belief in pattern bargaining, then added, “But I am a believer that if you can’t hire and you can’t retain, that is where you make an exception.”

Fewer and Less-Experienced Crews

During the Council hearing last month, the administration’s own statistics indicated that EMS may have reached that threshold on both ends, even if its competition stems from within the FDNY itself rather than the private sector. The Mayor’s Management Report showed a drop in the average number of ambulances in service daily in the fiscal year that ended last June 30 of 12—from 472 to 460, which FDNY Deputy Commissioner for Budget and Finance chalked up to vacancies in the EMS ranks that couldn’t always be covered by using workers on overtime.

And Chief Bonsignore said that in years in which there is extensive hiring from the promotion list for Firefighter that is given to EMTs, the average length of service is cut nearly in half for ambulance crews, from 6.7 years to 3.5 years. Pressed by City Council Fire and Emergency Management Committee Chairman Joe Borelli on whether medical studies hadn’t showed that more-experienced crews improved patient outcomes, Ms. Bonsignore finally conceded, “I am not disputing that experience is a good thing.”

Labor Commissioner Renee Campion, asked Feb. 11 whether circumstances had changed enough that Local 2507 and the EMS officers’ union, DC 37 Local 3621, could make a case for a pattern-breaking salary boost, said, “When we start bargaining Feb. 18, we’ll be open to what both unions have to say.”

Past bargaining history, however, suggests that it’s unrealistic to expect that the unions will be able to come close to wiping out the salary gap in a single contract, even if it goes to arbitration. Compelling evidence against that happening comes from an arbitration award in 2012 during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s final term in office in which the Law Enforcement Employees Benevolent Association convinced an arbitrator that the Environmental Police Officers it represented deserved to be placed on an equal footing with city cops.

Arbitrator Al Viani ruled that the union had proven that additional training given in the aftermath of 9/11 to the cops who patrol the city’s watershed areas placed them on an equal footing with their NYPD counterparts, and awarded them raises that were consistent with the uniformed-union pattern that had been applied to the Police Benevolent Association. He rebuffed, however, LEEBA’s request that salaries and pension benefits for the EPOs be substantially upgraded to give them full parity with NYPD officers, whose pay and benefits levels, he noted, were the product of numerous negotiations over decades.

(LEEBA in 2016 once again was able to exceed the existing bargaining pattern, in that case by extending EPOs tours for a corresponding additional raise.)

And so the award, while establishing an important precedent for the EPOs, was not the breakout contract LEEBA had hoped to gain in going to arbitration. That didn’t make Mr. Bloomberg any less furious about the award.

The EMS unions have sued over the pay gap as well. But their argument that it is the result of discrimination, citing the fact that far more of their members are women or members of minority groups than is the case for a firefighting force that despite progress in recent years remains 99 percent male and 78 percent white runs into trouble when weighed against another uniformed workforce. While 54 percent of EMS workers are black, Latino or Asian, 85 percent of the city’s correction officers are either black or Latino, yet they have pay parity with firefighters and cops.

Left Out of ‘60s Links

The significant disparity for EMS workers is largely a consequence of their jobs not having been part of the salary relationships established during the 1960s for uniformed workers, at a time when EMS was under the jurisdiction of the Health and Hospitals Corporation. While the City Council passed legislation more than a decade ago granting EMS workers uniformed status, it was ignored by the Bloomberg administration and had no discernible impact on their unions’ success in bargaining since.

After EMS was transferred from the hospital system to the control of the Fire Department in 1996, Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen floated an idea that could have remedied the pay gap relatively seamlessly: create a title of Firefighter/EMT in which new hires would be trained in both skills.

He had been appointed to his job by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in an unorthodox transition from serving as president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. He had previously agreed to have Firefighters receive some medical training in a certified-first-responder program aimed at speeding responses to patients in need of basic-life-support services.

Some of his critics within the often-fractious UFA accused him of making a sweetheart deal under which they were paid just $1,400 for taking on medical duties that many of them initially resisted, and being rewarded with the Commissioner’s job and a significant pay raise.

Those barbs were misguided on a couple of counts. One was that the UFA’s bargaining leverage had been gutted by delegates voting down a 1989 contract offer during the Koch administration. This forced the dispute into arbitration, where the union lost two key rights: a staffing guarantee for engine companies, and a written description of the job of Firefighter that would have allowed it to refuse to take on medical duties unless the city paid generously for that right.

The other reality Mr. Von Essen confronted after being elected UFA president in 1993 was that a decline in structural fires had a couple of years earlier led Mayor Dinkins to close a Bronx firehouse during a budget crunch. While Mr. Giuliani had a soft spot for the Fire Department, Mr. Von Essen worried about what his successor might do—a fear that was borne out when Mr. Bloomberg closed several firehouses in the name of efficiency.

Safeguard Against Cuts

In his mind, he said, in explaining his willingness to take on medical duties for his members, it became a safeguard against arguments for reducing the size of the firefighting force on the grounds that there was less work for them to do.

Once he had settled in as Commissioner, he began talking about combining the two disciplines within a single title.

Currently working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as Administrator of its Region 2, covering New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Mr. Von Essen recalled in a Feb. 11 interview, “The main reason I supported it was I remembered as a young Firefighter all the guys who had EMT training,” although many of them had those skills erode over years in which they weren’t being used. “I thought how valuable it would be to get health professionals on the fire scene as early as possible.”

Also, he said, he was conscious of the need to better integrate the firefighting force, which during the 1990s was more than 90 percent white and had just a couple of dozen women. EMS, he noted, “had a much-bigger population of women” and “a more-diversified group” racially.

The hybrid title already existed in other cities where he said “the service was much, much better.”

He had favored the consolidation of EMS into the Fire Department because he thought it would build a spirit he believed the crews were lacking while also giving them better training facilities than they’d had at HHC. “They were all stationed on the corner. That I thought was one of the biggest negatives,” said Mr. Von Essen, contrasting it with the advantages firefighters had working out of quarters in which it was not uncommon for them to fashion make-shift gyms where they could work out while awaiting emergency calls, rather than being tethered to their vehicles.

He envisioned placing them in public facilities “where they could give flu shots” and promote health education in addition to responding medical runs.

Sitting in his office at the World Trade Center, Mr. Von Essen said he had believed he would get a chance to combine the two jobs after Mr. Giuliani left office, having gotten a commitment from then-Public Advocate Mark Green that he would retain him as Fire Commissioner if he won the 2001 election. But 9/11, in addition to devastating the Fire Department, changed the political dynamic enough to allow Mr. Bloomberg to overcome a huge deficit in the polls and defeat Mr. Green, leading Mr. Von Essen to follow Mr. Giuliani into his private business.

Took a Look, But…

He said he believed that the Bloomberg administration had considered having paramedics assigned to fire companies, since their response times were swifter than those of ambulance crews, but eventually concluded it made more sense to deploy EMTs, since their basic-life-support training was needed far more often that the advanced-life-support skills in which paramedics were trained.

“I was surprised that Bloomberg didn’t do it,” he said. “He had 12 years and he was a big-idea guy, but he never got into the weeds on it.”

The failure to create a hybrid title in which persons with both skills would have been placed on the Firefighter pay scale accounts for the disparity that will be at the heart of the EMS contract talks. Mr. Von Essen had a few ideas on starting to narrow the gap, while cautioning, “No union guy thinks he’s gonna go in and equalize everything on the first day.”

He remarked, “I would say first thing is give them something better on their medical leave and give them a quartermaster system” under which new uniforms are provided as needed by the FDNY rather than requiring EMS workers to pay for them. He pointed out that in contrast to cops and firefighters, who are given unlimited sick leave because of the hazards of their jobs, EMS workers “have 12 days of medical leave. They’re exposed to all kinds of contagious diseases—you can’t give them a better leave than that?”

He added, “There are creative ways that the police have figured out to break parity” and go beyond city bargaining patters, although those have generally involved reducing starting salaries and pay scales for future hires.

And, Mr. Von Essen added, both sides should be able to figure out a way to start closing the gap in maximum salary to prevent the exodus every time a promotion list for Firefighter comes into use.

“You couldn’t do it overnight, but you could start getting it done over a couple of contracts,” he said.

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