Low pay, work stress lead to high turnover, FDNY EMTs say
NEW YORK - Alex Puszka is an emergency medical technician with the FDNY — a difficult job made nearly unbearable by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think it's definitely been a shock to a lot of us," he said. "Some members, depression. Some members PTSD."
And that includes Puszka. He said at one point he contemplated suicide. The amount of death he and other EMTs and paramedics have witnessed firsthand is unprecedented.
"I honestly lost count. There was just an overwhelming sense of dread coming to work," he said. "Going home from work, exposing [the virus] possibly to your family."
Puszka said he feels the FDNY needs to provide mental health services from psychiatrists and psychologists for those who need help.
"People didn't know how to talk about it and people kept everything inside," Puszka said. "We are not provided adequate resources in terms of our mental health."
Oren Barzilay is the president of the union that represents EMTs and paramedics. Barzilay recently testified at a hearing before the City Council's Committee on Fire and Emergency Management. Barzilay told Fox 5 News that mental health resources are limited for EMS members and often times they have to pay for professional help out of pocket, which they cannot afford.
The FDNY told Fox 5 News that it has seven licensed mental health counselors, nine licensed clinical social workers, and 90 EMS peer counselors, who are coworkers.
"Sending a peer counselor to talk and say, 'How are you doing? How are you feeling today?' and that's where it ends," Barzilay said. "They need a psychiatrist, psychologist — somebody who can treat them."
Puszka takes great pride in his job. EMTs are trained to perform basic life support including CPR, controlling bleeding, using defibrillators for heart failure, treating diabetic and allergic reactions and seizures, stabilizing fractures, and giving medications.
"We at times save lives and we give people hope where there may be none," said Puszka, whom we interviewed when he was off-duty.
His union president also provided FOX 5 News access to Puszka from a distance during one of his shifts. On this call, the NYPD also responded with protective shields. The patient was apparently intoxicated and possibly mentally unstable.
The EMT and paramedics union said the profession has become a revolving door. The FDNY has lost roughly 400 EMTs every year, primarily because of low salaries. The union said the average length of stay on the job is two to three years.
In the current contract that the union reached with the city, the starting pay is about $18 an hour plus eight hours of overtime every two weeks. Compare that to workers at Target where the company will soon be paying up to $24 an hour.
Puszka, 32, said he earns about $1,300 every two weeks.
"I live with my parents because I'm not able to afford housing," he said.
City Council Member Joann Ariola of Queens is the chair of the council's Committee on Fire and Emergency Management.
"I believe and the city council believes that we're losing a lot of EMTs mostly because of the lack of pay parity," Ariola said. "We're wasting a lot of money on training them and not retaining them and we can't have that go on."
In 2017, 355 EMTs were hired while 448 left the job for a variety of reasons including retirement, injuries or salary, according to numbers the FDNY provided to Fox 5 News. In 2018, 449 EMTs were hired and 649 left. In 2019, the FDNY hired 488 EMTs; 227 left. And in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, 493 were hired while 113 left. Last year, 387 were hired and 278 left the job.
"People can't afford being an EMT," Puszka said. "Many of my colleagues say they are waiting for the next opportunity."