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EMS staffing change continues to cause labor-management friction

Tuesday, March 6, 2012 by Michael Kanin

An attempt by city management and the Austin/Travis County EMS Employees Association to agree to set firm parameters around a pending EMS staffing change appears to be on the rocks. The news came Monday as a resolution from Council Member Bill Spelman that could affect the situation reappeared on the Austin City Council’s agenda for this Thursday.


News of the faltering negotiations came out as union officials and EMS management were both asked to give the city’s Public Safety Commission an update on the discussions. Though city officials were careful to focus on the fact that the parties had agreed on several things, they also reminded the commission that city management was within its rights to act without input from them or Council. “We agreed to have a discussion with (the union) and we put together a team with EMS management along with the labor relations office,” said Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald. “If we were of the same minds, and they were in agreement with it, then the City Manager was willing to put those points into a letter of understanding…that’s what we committed to doing. But we were not in favor of opening the contract right now or signing anything right now that would make it enforceable under the current contract.”


EMS union head Steve Stewart told a handful of reporters after the meeting that he did not believe that city management was negotiating in good faith. “They didn’t seem to want to get to an agreement,” he said.


The staffing change in question would reorganize Austin/Travis County EMS ambulance crews. If enacted, the switch would pair a paramedic (a medical officer capable of handling advanced life support needs) with an emergency medical technician (someone with comparatively basic skills). Current EMS staffing relies only on paramedics.


Last week, Spelman was ready to offer a resolution that would have created a management-labor oversight committee charged with monitoring scheduling issues that may arise with the change. Spelman was also looking to ensure that the paramedics who pilot the new program are compensated for their extra work. (See In Fact Daily, March 1, 2012)  The switch will be tried in a limited capacity before a complete change moves forward.


Spelman declined to take action on the measure last Thursday, pending the outcome of negotiations between the union and city management. On Monday, his office told In Fact Daily that Spelman was monitoring the situation, and that his item, which has been carried over from last week’s Council meeting, would remain on the agenda until further notice.


Public Safety Commission Member Mike Levy noted that, from his perspective, it was better to have the rank and file onboard with the change. “Neither (McDonald) nor the (City) Manager, nor the members of the community, nor the members of this commission are in the back of an ambulance with a very complex patient and with the ability to make a difference between life or death,” he said. “I think (the paramedics) are due the respect of having a finalization – a conclusion – on a fair and reasonable agreement.


“We don’t want the same kind of uncertainty we’ve had in the past,” he continued. “We’ve seen what happens. We (could) have deterioration of morale; we (could) have good paramedics leaving the system. It takes so long to recover from that.”


Stewart told the commission that he and his team were under the impression that the provisions that they agreed with management on would be committed to a memorandum of understanding. He further maintained that whatever was committed to in writing would be enforceable under the meet-and-confer agreement that the EMS union holds with city management. “We were told it was going to be enforceable and then, last Friday, all of that changed,” he said.

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