EMS workers
EMS workers are not covered by a City Council hazard-pay proposal, and it is unclear if federal funds will trickle down to those workers.

Even before the coronavirus caused the number of FDNY medical 911 calls to skyrocket from an average volume of 4,000 per day to more than 6,500, New York City’s first responders faced significant dangers on the job, including the risk of contracting diseases. 

Some might have thought of emergency medical service (EMS) workers as “just ambulance drivers,” says Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507, but they are the first ones to make contact with patients and conduct physical examinations in a medical emergency. Barzilay adds, “With fire, you can see the fire. With police officers, you can see the criminals. With infectious diseases, these are invisible bullets.”

Despite the clear dangers they take on in their work, the EMS workforce has faced low wages for years. Their pay today is, on average, $16 per hour — just a dollar more than the city’s minimum wage. However, the concept of government-mandated hazard pay for essential workers during the COVID-19 public health crisis is catching on. With shrunken state and city budgets, the most viable hope for frontline workers like first responders to see bigger paychecks is at the federal level. The Heroes Act, which passed the House and will go to the Senate next, includes a $200 billion fund to provide hazard pay for essential workers.

The New York City Council also introduced a bill in late April that would require employers with more than 100 employees to give non-salaried workers hazard pay bonuses, but these requirements would not apply to city workers like first responders whose paychecks do not come from private businesses. The Council legislation would apply to essential workers employed privately at places such as grocery stores, drug stores, restaurants open for food deliveries and home-healthcare agencies. If enacted, the bill would require large employers to provide bonuses of $30 for a shift under four hours, $60 for a shift of four to eight hours, and $75 dollars for any shift over eight hours until the state of emergency is lifted. However, the legislation lacks a funding mechanism, which has raised concerns among leaders of home-healthcare agencies and the owners of small businesses that are large enough to fall under the bill’s purview.

Home-healthcare agencies warn

The City Council’s proposal to require premium pay for essential non-salaried workers is part of a package of bills introduced at the same time to address the massive burden essential workers, often for low pay, have shouldered during the crisis as the rest of the city shut down. Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo and Speaker Corey Johnson sponsored the premium pay bill.

“Essential workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep this City running and to keep New Yorkers safe. We must treat these workers with the respect and dignity they deserve,” said Majority Leader Cumbo. “The bill that I am sponsoring with Speaker Johnson would ensure these critical workers are compensated in a way that reflects their critical contributions towards our City’s health and economy in the short and long-term.”

Home health aides are a clear example of the kind of worker the bill is designed to benefit. Often paid hourly rates that hover around minimum wage, home health aides had to leave their homes throughout the COVID-19 crisis to provide assistance and health care to some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. The tasks these workers perform tend to require contact with the patient as well. 

Ira Wincott, counsel for the Save New York City Home Health Care Coalition, says home health agencies have had trouble maintaining enough staff, because some aides have been ill, couldn’t travel to the patient, or had to make tough choices about the risk of exposure. He says hazard pay would not only be a sign of appreciation, but could also provide an incentive to continue working as a home aide. However, Wincott warns that the City Council’s bill lacks a funding mechanism and he says “expect agency closures, jobs losses” and patients potentially having to move into nursing homes if the hazard pay requirements become law in New York City without the federal or state government swooping in to pick up the tab.

This month, the coalition of 28 home care service agencies based in New York City, which Wincott represents, released a statement saying the City Council’s bill “threatens their entire industry’s survival, unless the federal and state governments come to the table with added funding to support proposed premium pay, if passed.”

Wincott explains that among the home-healthcare agencies that he represents, about 95 percent of the caseload comes from Medicaid. The Council bill doesn’t include provisions for increasing Medicaid payment rates (which would likely have to come from the state level because of how Medicaid is administered) to cover hazard pay, and it doesn’t offer other funding to cover the proposed premium pay. Meanwhile, Wincott says the COVID-19 crisis has already increased costs for home-healthcare agencies, such as for the PPE needed to protect their employees. 

Christy Johnston, vice president of governmental & managed care services at Premier Home Health Services, which operates in seven states, including New York, says that adding more unfunded costs would not work, given the current system of home health. They cannot raise prices for their clients like some private businesses in other sectors can.

“We’re grappling with new costs that we’re already trying to deal with. A bill like this just adds more unfunded costs on top of it that are not sustainable in the current system,” she says. 

Now that leaders in the home-healthcare industry have aired their concerns, Johnston says she hopes a more “thoughtful process” will happen because “understanding the differences between industries is critically important.” 

A spokesperson for the City Council said in a statement to City Limits, “This bill had a hearing and is going through the legislative process, which includes reviewing feedback from industry stakeholders. The Council will continue trying to protect essential workers with this feedback in mind.”

Who will provide the cash to cover hazard pay?

On May 13, Mayor de Blasio spoke about the federal funding that can make its way to essential workers if Congress passes The Heroes Act. 

“This is something that people who are working right now who have fought through this crisis deserve and it’s coming from the place that can actually manage to do it on a vast scale, the federal government,” he said.

Given that the Heroes Fund might shrink once the Senate weighs in, and the fact that timing of receiving funding is still uncertain, some small business owners in New York City fear how the passage of the Council hazard pay bill could further damage the chances of their business surviving the pandemic. 

Even the structure of some big businesses that operate in the city could prove a challenge to the success of the city council bill. For example, Dunkin’ Brands employs thousands of New Yorkers, but they operate under a franchised system. This means that while there’d likely be enough profits to go around over at the company’s corporate headquarters, it’s the individual business owners and franchisees who would have to come up with the money to fulfill the hazard pay premiums their employees would be eligible for under the City Council’s proposed legislation. 

And even if The Heroes Act passes with the $200 billion hazard pay fund intact, it’s still unclear whether this funding would clear up concerns about how businesses that are more financially vulnerable will have enough money to cover pay premiums without contributing to job loss. 

The text of The Heroes Act defines a “COVID-19 front line employee” (who would be eligible for hazard pay) as “any individual who performs at least 1,000 hours of essential work.” This would cover public health professionals, health care professionals and support staff, and essential workers (as defined by a state, tribe, locality, or territory). This means the $200 billion fund would potentially cover a vast percentage of the national workforce. Depending on how Secretary Steven Mnuchin might administer the funds (the Treasury would administer the COVID-19 Heroes Fund) and given the bungled rollout of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), there’s cause for concern that the federal government still might not come to the rescue.

Still, Barzilay hopes the hazardous pay does make its way to first responders. The same first responders who are getting recognition because of the public health crisis, who are being called heroes, have had to live out of their cars or at their friends’ and parents’ houses because of their meager pay, he explains.

“I think it will show the value of EMS. It will show it’s a true service the city provides,” he says.

Barzilay adds that most FDNY EMS workers leave after two to three years, often to pursue careers in other areas of healthcare and public service offering higher pay. Meanwhile, research suggests having more experienced paramedics in the workforce improves performance, which can mean the difference between how many lives are saved each day. 

And given the intense trauma people working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis have faced already over the span of several months, the dangers posed for their mental health are just as real as the risk for physical illness. Barzilay hopes the city will also move to identify funding for addressing trauma and potential cases of PTSD in the months ahead.


Nicole Javorsky is a Report for America corps member.

21 thoughts on “Dispute Over Who Will Fund Hazard Pay for NYC’s Essential Workers

  1. Anyone who has left their homes to go to work during this pandemic is a hero and I believe they deserve a lot more than just Thank you! As for the people who stood home and received an extra 600.00 dollars per week not to go to work ,they have gotten their reward. If the government can fund additional funds for people on welfare/food stamps then they can surely fund additional funds to the people who continue to work through this pandemic. The government is quick to find funds for immigrants and people who refuse to work instead rather collect welfare when they are capable of going to work even if it is a part time job and then let the government help. But for these people who refuse to work because they know that the government will help them with food and housing an there bills is ridiculous. That’s why this city claims to always be broke. There should be a limit on how long a person can stay on these programs before they are kicked off. As far as Hero’s pay for all essential workers, They deserve a big reward for putting not only their lives on the line but their families lives as well. If the government doesn’t reward them then shame on them!! And god forbid there is another pandemic I hope these same essential workers our (HEROS) remember what our government did for them when force to go to work!! It shouldn’t be up to congress it should be the government of each state and if congress wants to give additional funds to these worker than god bless. These essential workers deserve there rewards NOW not later!

  2. I’m still scratching my head and thinking … We risked our lives going to work everyday and they’re debating whether to compensate us for our sacrifices????!!! Next time I’ll just stay home and collect $600 every week plus unemployment benefits then.

    • I thought the same thing too. I got sick the first week, and I work as a home health aid, I went back to work within two days since all I had was headache and body ache. We have to take transportation every day and expose ourselves and our family. So, I believe we deserve to pay extra.

      • To be pay extra. When I heard that people were getting paid $600 plus their unemployment, I said to myself I should have stayed home too.

  3. Please don’t forget the volunteer fire departments on Long Island, Upstate New York, and Volunteer Ambulance Corps. We are first responders who cover our regions. There are no paid departments, we are IT.
    None of us would ask for money, it would be nice to be included as there are many of us who are feeling the economic impact right now due to the pandemic.

  4. Everyone who went to work During COVID-19 they deserve a good pay check, they are helping here not over seas instead of sending money to the crooks head of dictator country give to the one who are helping us.

  5. This is totally insane. People staying home are getting more money than people who are risking their life and working during this pandemic. I got exposed at work and got sick and stayed home for 14 days. I returned back to work on the 15th day even though I was so weak. I thought that its unethical for me to stay home being a health care professional during pandemic. The government should not scratch their head to reward essential workers. If they do not do anything, next time I am gonna stay home taking free money.

  6. call your congress reps make your voice heard essential workers should be frontline to any
    bill covid 19 related. and fast …thank you for all you do.

  7. Anyone involved in the care of a Covid patient down to the people who serve the food and clean the rooms deserve hazard pay the wages healthcare workers receive is a shame. Regardless of which state you live in the government should treat us better than this.

  8. I am a frontline support staff. While many people were running out of the city hospitals to stay home to avoid the pandemic. I went to work everyday. Canceled my vacation three times during the pandemic to ensure my team had coverage and supported three different areas (including the ER).
    And never once was acknowledged for my hard work. It was all about the Nurses and Doctors which I supported and cheered on as well. I saw so much death and miracles that the least the government can do is compensate me. I know people that received full unemployment benefits and addition $600, making over $1000 a week to just stay home and people that went to work everyday, barely mad $500 to bring home to their family. If you call this justice then next pandemic I’m staying home and getting my cut too.

  9. I am also a frontline support staff (Emergency Room Technician) who worked all through the pandemic except tor the few days I was home because I was compromised at work and contracted the Covid-19 virus. I have seen and assisted with all the patients that come through the emergency room taking checking vitals, performing EKG’s, hooking them to the heart monitors and assisted with ADL’s. I am very disappointed with how the government is handling the hazard pay issues. While the people who are on unemployment gets more money to stay home than I am working for. And on top of that I am paying taxes! So where is the justice here? I am out there still facing the crisis and yet you all have to debate compensation for us. Shame on you all! Give us what is duly ours. You all have your priorities backward!!!

  10. Incredible how you can pay people more to stay at home safe, and expect those who risk their lives to work for less!! I have coworkers who got so ill they did not know they would even survive and while they were sick with this received 2/3 compensation around 300 a week! This country really does reward those who are lazy! I’m glad we still have the mentality of getting rich off the lives of others forcing people to choose between their life and work is akin to slavery!

  11. i am home aid and this hard time i am sick , i have Ramadan but didnot skip one dAy on my job not leave my patient alone l have kids husband very risky time but did get any fund not fair im deserve fund in hero act hope i get it reward Thanks

  12. Shame on the goverment.In the second wave of corona virus all essential workers stay home and take care of their family’s and loved once.

  13. Can someone explain the logic , of unemployment versus the people who continue to go to work every day who is not getting compensated for risking there llife.?.

      • Well, they accomplished that and more. I know a few people who were on unemployment before the crisis (and both are too damn lazy to get a real job) and one is working under the table as well. Then the virus hits and they both get an additional $600 added to their unemployment checks. I thought the $600 was only for those who lost their jobs because of the virus, but no, everyone collecting unemployment got it. I’m sorry, that’s B.S. And yes, I worked during the virus.

        • Believe this 100%. Nurse and I kept medical practice going with strong work ethnics and over time so others had a job to come back to after their double paid vacation.

  14. now the people on unemployment are going to get 450.00 a week to go back to work and this is called the heros act. We went to work I thought we were the hero! This is not only a slap in the face it is a disgrace that we keep sacrificing our lives as well as our families

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