At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in our city this spring, a heartwarming civic ritual spontaneously arose, lifting spirits during a deeply isolating period. At 7 p.m., New Yorkers would come out of their homes or lean out on their fire escapes, applauding our essential workers changing shifts for their heroic sacrifices. From Baychester to Bay Ridge, the joyous whoops and clanging of kitchenware each evening were a welcome reprieve from the constant wail of sirens.
We were all too happy to show our gratitude to these workers at 7 p.m. But when Friday at 7 a.m. rolled around, the paychecks deposited in many of their accounts didn't reflect that gratitude. And they still don't.
New York City Emergency Medical Service workers, who are medically trained, typically make only $33,320 when they start at their jobs. After five years on the job, they will earn about $47,685. That's not just far less than their peers in the Fire Department and Police Department, it's also way less than the salaries of EMS workers in cities like Boston and Philadelphia. It's little wonder, then, that the profession has a high rate of attrition, with 65 percent of EMS workers having less than three years' experience. And not surprisingly, women and people of color are more heavily represented among EMS workers than they are in similar fields: 49 percent are black or Hispanic, and one in four are women.
Heroic Work Took Toll
For months, these heroes have braved unimaginable circumstances amid this unprecedented pandemic. They have put themselves in harm's way every single day, risking their own health and the health of their families to help those stricken with the virus and save lives. In March and April, as the virus was straining our health-care system and claiming the lives of hundreds of New Yorkers a day, 911 dispatchers reported a "record high" volume of emergency calls. Paramedics and EMTs worked themselves past the point of exhaustion, trying to keep up with the ever-mounting toll. The result has been predictable: a recent study found that EMS workers were 15 times more likely to be infected during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the general public.
Recently the city added yet another responsibility to their already-demanding workloads. In a new policy unveiled Nov. 10, Mayor de Blasio announced a pilot program that would dispatch EMS health professionals and mental-health crisis workers to respond to 911 calls, rather than police officers. The pilot, which is set to begin in February 2021 in two high-need neighborhoods, would divert a substantial number of the 170,000 annual 911 calls relating to mental-health issues to the new teams, if scaled up city-wide.
To be clear, our issue is not with the new policy. Reducing encounters between police and those suffering from mental-health crises, many of which can turn fatal, is a welcome paradigm shift. But asking even more of our overtaxed EMS workers while paying them the same salary as they were paid before the pandemic is completely unfair.
Even more galling, the city actually floated laying off some of these heroes earlier this year. In August, District Council 37 Local 2507 President Oren Barzilay said up to 400 EMS workers, representing 10 percent of the workforce, could be laid off. City Hall cited budgetary constraints, and claimed that all agencies would be facing cuts. Thankfully, the union was able to stave off the cuts--but think about the message that sends to people who spend day in and out keeping us safe, and are now being entrusted with the care of people struggling with severe mental health issues.
Our paramedics and EMTs deserve more than applause. They deserve real pay parity that acknowledges the depth of their sacrifice, and their contributions to New York. In fact, we should go further and consider some form of COVID-related hazard pay and Federal tax relief. As our city braces for a second wave of the coronavirus this winter, now is the time to put our money where our mouth is.
Eric Adams is Brooklyn's Borough President and a candidate for Mayor in 2021. Justin Brannan represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and other Brooklyn neighborhoods in the City Council.
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