Veteran emergency medical technicians and paramedics have spent decades intubating patients and performing many other medical procedures in cramped ambulances. Now, a growing number of EMS workers are exiting the field for good. The reason: COVID-19 makes the job too dangerous.
"I knew it would probably kill me if I went out there and had multiple exposures — and I'm not a chicken," said Robert Baer, an EMT in New York City with 29 years on the job, including 23 as an instructor. "I love the job, but my doctors were telling me I shouldn't be going in the field, that it was very dangerous."
Baer was among the first responders to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and he now suffers from asthma, chronic bronchitis, sleep apnea and other conditions that make him more vulnerable to COVID-19.
In March, Baer, 59, was set to be deployed to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York, which at the time was deluged with coronavirus cases as the infection raced through the city. But he decided the risks were too high because of his own pre-existing health conditions.
Rather than expose himself to a stream of infected patients in Queens, Baer opted to retire last month, ending his career at least a full year earlier than he'd planned. That disqualified him from collecting his full pension, and Baer estimates he gave up between $2,000 and $4,000 a year in retirement benefits — a decision he doesn't regret.
"I looked at it as life over limb. It wasn't about the money — it was about my health and surviving," he said, noting the emotional toll of attending the funerals of colleagues who have died from COVID-19.
"They are leaving"
Oren Barzilay, president of the FDNY-EMS Local 2507, representing New York City medics, said that a record 60 or so EMTs — many of them over the age of 50 — have left the department since March.
"Some people like to complete 30 years on the job so they can maximize their pension, but I noticed a trend in recent weeks that they aren't really concerned about that anymore. As soon as they reach their eligibility, which is 25 years, they are leaving," he said.
Another factor that may be spurring this exodus is the modest pay EMT workers receive for a job that is stressful in the best of times and now, with the pandemic, potentially life-threatening. In New York, an EMT's salary starts at around $35,000 and tops out at $50,000, according to Barzilay. Nationally, the job pays an average of $38,830 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"They see the risks associated with the job and the low pay, and it's just not worth it," Barzilay said.
And it isn't just those approaching retirement who are leaving emergency services as a career. Michael MacNeil, president of Boston's EMS association, representing local medics, said that since May he has seen a growing number of workers with only a couple years in the field hand in their resignations.
Relatedly, there has been a "significant decrease" in applications for EMT vacancies this year, MacNeil said. In a typical year, the department fields up to 800 applications for 48 recruitment slots. This year's class has only 16 members, according to MacNeil.
"We aren't getting people interested and don't have enough qualified applicants to fill available seats," he said. "We can't fill the jobs."
A safer way to make a living
Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, representing medics in Austin, Texas, said that 25 people have left EMS jobs in the region this year, already topping the annual average of 30 departures.
"We know for sure the virus is helping people make the decision that this is not an ideal job right now and that their own health and their family's health is at risk," Xie said.
Steven Kleinberg, 56, a paramedic in Brooklyn, New York, is also choosing to retire this year because he wants to "leave in one piece."
"COVID took a lot out of me, and at first I wasn't sure about retiring, but the pandemic made up my mind for me," he told CBS MoneyWatch. "If I worked longer, I would be entitled to more money, but I am at the point where I will take what I have earned."
Instead, Kleinberg will focus on his side job, the success of which in recent months is yet another tragic sign of the times: working as a funeral director.
"It's a safer way for me to make a living at this point, at this stage in my life," he said. "I am looking to have a long, happy retirement."