There was a celebration in lower Manhattan earlier this month that honored the essential workers and their life-saving work during the pandemic. There was confetti and rows of people cheering the workers on for all their hard work during a time when everyone was at risk. While this sounds like a sweet moment, some essential workers believe the money that had gone to the parade should have been compensation for what they had to endure last year. In fact, many members of the New York City Fire Department Bureau of Emergency Medical Services (FDNY EMS) who worked during the height of the pandemic refused to attend.
I spoke with FDNY EMS Lieutenant, Joe McWilliams, on the working conditions for essential workers during the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, McWilliams says, “there was daily news of worsening conditions in Europe [with] no visible pre-planning taking place within FDNY EMS. In February 2020, there was no clear direction as to how we were going to be handling these patients. What level of PPE would be appropriate? What hospital should they be transported to? Could family or anyone transport the patient to the hospital?”
He says it became clear as the pandemic worsened that supplies and PPE equipment were going to be few and far between. The N95 masks were no longer available for single patients to later be disposed of; EMS workers we’re being told to use multiple masks at a time more than once. “As time progressed it became clear that no specific plan was being implemented, direction [was] given as reactionary to the daily situation changes,” McWilliams says on the lack of plans and communications being made as the pandemic continued.
The lack of information on what happens if an EMS member were to catch COVID was also troubling for workers. “What happens if a family member becomes sick? Should EMS Members who have a compromised immune system be pulled from field duties? What if a family member living at home has a compromised immune system?” He also said there were many unanswered questions in regards to their personal safety and whether or not quarantine quarters would be made available.
By the time April and March came around, the height of the pandemic, the volume of patients that needed to be transported increased dramatically. To potentially stop the spread of COVID and cross contamination, workers were paired up and told they were to only work with each other. According to McWilliams, “It took weeks to get this work schedule implemented. In addition, work days were extended from 8 hour days to 12 hour days.”
McWilliams says a lack of confidence quickly arose in the FDNY and EMS leadership. “We knew this virus was coming into the country and was already present and nothing proactive was being done to address it.”
However; issues as far as compensation within the EMS field had been going on far before the pandemic. “Over the years the responsibilities, job descriptions, and training requirements for these titles have grown rapidly. Unfortunately the salaries have never kept pace with the growth of the job.” New hires within the field, about 60% or more, have no intentions of staying because the maximum attainable salary is so low.
For level 1 EMS, the base pay salary is $35,000/yr and by their 5th year that number only raises to about $50,000/yr. An FDNY or NYPD officer makes more than half that by their fifth year or so. All three professions are equally exhausting, stressful, and at times dangerous.
Due to poor pay and not enough experienced workers staying in the field, there is a negative impact on how patient care is provided. “[At this] point we have members with very little experience training brand new members. This is a recipe for disaster, and it has been going on for quite some time,” says McWilliams.
While a celebration of their hard work is a kind gesture, many EMS workers were drowning with the lack of resources and staff while fighting to keep the city alive. A symbolic “thanks”, floats, and ticker tape confetti isn’t enough to silence the push for better pay to EMS workers.