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NY unions: Low pay driving out experienced first responders

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Irene Spezzamonte
Staten Island Advance

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Low wages for emergency medical services workers and cops are driving away experienced first responders and creating a dangerous situation for city residents, union leaders and politicians warn.

Vincent Variale, the president of the Uniformed EMS Officers Union, said the FDNY is suffering a high turnover for EMS workers, mostly caused by a low starting salary.

“When EMS first responders are paid less than what it costs to live in the city they serve, it impacts the morale,” Variale said. “Ironically, one of the reasons the de Blasio Administration says they can’t fix this problem is that it will cost too much.”

An FDNY EMS officer’s salary starts at $33,320, about $16 per hour, reaching $47,685 after five years in the department, according to publicly-available data.

In addition, union leaders argue that the amount of work has increased every year.

In 2019 alone, FDNY EMS responded to 1,531,870 medical emergencies – about 4,197 calls a day or 175 calls per hour, according to FDNY data.

“What is the value of expertise, longevity and experience of EMS personnel responding to the public when they need life-saving services?” Variale added.

Oren Barzilay, the president of the Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics & Fire Inspectors union, said that currently 75% of the workforce has less than five years of experience.

“We have wonderful recruits who come here to start their medical careers and simply cannot afford to stay. They cannot afford the rent, taxes, cost of commuting on the lowest wage scale imaginable in the entire medical industry,” Barzilay said. “New York City leaders must put an end to this horrible brain drain that is clearly dangerous to human life.”

Ultimately, the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations has the last word on how and when to raise EMT salaries.

Laura Feyer, a deputy press secretary at the mayor’s office, said that the salary for FDNY EMS personnel is competitive with salaries in the private sector, adding that salaries and benefits are both better overall for FDNY EMTs and paramedics when compared to their private sector counterparts.

FDNY EMS salaries are not the only ones leaders consider to be too low.

On Feb. 3, 23 state senators, including Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn), co-signed a letter addressed to Mayor Bill de Blasio asking him “to significantly raising the salaries of New York City police officers.”

“For as long as I have been involved with the Municipal Labor Movement and the legislature the pay disparity that NYC Police experience has been a problem,” Savino told the Advance. “A problem that was exasperated by the 1995-2001 Economic Agreement that cut starting salaries for NYC employees. We need to catch up to the rest of the state and make sure our members are properly compensated.”

The starting salary for an NYPD officer is $42,500 and could reach $85,292 after about five years in the department, according publicly-available data.

“The men and women who ensure the safety of our great city deserve more than below market-rate wages,” the letter reads. “These pay inequities are particularly unjust given the increase in responsibilities that police officers have taken on. They have, time and again, risen to the occasion when asked to counter terrorism, battle the opioid epidemic, respond to active shooters, and a variety of other crises that arise in the modern era.”

In Nassau County, police officers’ salaries start at $38,479, but jump to $52,059 within the first year, according to the Nassau Police Department data.

Officers in Suffolk County receive a starting salary of $42,000, while officers in the Yonkers receive a starting salary between $39,449 and $47,586.

Different and possibly higher salaries in neighboring departments can cause NYPD officers to move from one force to the other.

“This leads to increasingly severe attrition, as officers flee in droves to take jobs in other municipal or state-level forces that pay more,” the letter states. “It is unreasonable and unfair to expect the men and women of the NYPD to continue putting their lives on the line day after day for such subpar pay.”

Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch told the Advance the union applauds the senators who co-signed the letter.

“They know how much safe streets mean to their constituents, and they don’t want to see the NYPD hamstrung by below-market police salaries that make it difficult to recruit and retain the Finest,” Lynch said in a written statement. "Nearly all of New York City’s local elected officials – City Council members, Assembly members and state senators – are united in demanding an end to the police pay gap. Once again, the de Blasio administration is not listening to the voices of regular New Yorkers.”