Out-of-state EMTs and paramedics who risked their lives to help New Yorkers during the coronavirus crisis say the FEMA subcontractor that hired them controlled every second of their deployment, including their sex lives — and then refused to pay them for all of their time.
According to a stunning lawsuit filed in Brooklyn state court, private ambulance operator Ambulnz promised the group of first responders it recruited back in March it “would be paid for 24-hours a day, 7-days a week” for deploying to the city as the COVID-19 cases began skyrocketing.
But Ambulnz went back on its word after the recruits arrived, including by refusing to pay people for the time it took to drive their ambulances to NYC, according to the suit.
Once in the Big Apple, Ambulnz told the recruits “to remain in their hotel rooms at all times when not on shift,” the lawsuit said, and were ordered to refrain from “consuming alcohol or engaging in any sexual activity while at their hotel, in order to remain ‘on call’ for any emergencies.”
Those who disobeyed faced punishment, including possible termination, according to the suit. Ambulnz even placed a security guard in the hotel lobby and required its workers to carry GPS devices to ensure they stayed put, the lawsuit said.
In an interview with The Post, lead plaintiff James Richard said he worked seven days a week for the month of April, responding to heart attacks, gunshot incidents and COVID-19 cases while helping the fire department respond to 911 calls. When he wasn’t working, Richard said he was awakened by blaring calls on his emergency-responder radio, which he was required to have with him at all times.
The 29-year-old EMT from Murfreesboro, Tenn., said he only learned of the company’s actual pay policy about two weeks into his stint when he was given a document showing that his pay — 1.25 times his regular pay, plus overtime, for seven 12-hour shifts a week — would be less than other FEMA responders.
Richard was told he could accept the terms or go home, he said. “I didn’t want to leave New York in that state,” Richard said about the city’s massive COVID-19 caseload. “Morally, I couldn’t do that.”
FEMA declined to provide information about its pay requirements, but the lawsuit claims that all other ambulance services companies contracted by FEMA during this time paid their EMTs and paramedics for 24/7 shifts.
Once its workers returned home, Ambulnz asked them to sign general-release agreements giving up their right to recover unpaid wages, said Sally Abrahamson, the group’s lawyer. She said the company also is trying to enforce arbitration agreements it had EMTs sign shortly before deploying them.
Ambulnz defended its pay practices in a statement saying that it “verified compensation practices for our New York City COVID-19 response contract with two separate, independent top-tier labor law firms,” and that both firms “confirmed that our payroll practices exceeded the amount required by law.“
However, legal experts indicated such employment conditions merit better treatment. “When you tell an employee you have to stay in your hotel room, can’t have a beer, and can’t have sex, that’s pretty good evidence that the time belongs to the company and should be compensable,” said labor lawyer Louis Pechman, who teaches a course on wage theft at Fordham Law School.