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Union reps address Council on employment issues

Friday, January 23, 2015 by Jo Clifton

City Council listened to representatives of the firefighters, police and EMS unions Thursday. Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, and his attorney took the lion’s share of the time to complain about the city’s failure to listen to his group’s input in designing a process to hire new firefighters. The city issued a request for proposals for that process in December.

That RPF closes next Wednesday. Nicks has said he wants the city to scuttle the request, and District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman has proposed a resolution to do just that.

However, it was not clear at the end of the meeting how the majority of Council members felt about the idea. Nicks told the Monitor he did not expect the resolution to appear on next week’s agenda.

On Nov. 7, the U.S. Justice Department settled a lawsuit with the city over alleged discrimination against African-American and Hispanic candidates in Austin Fire Department hiring practices. In the filing, the city agreed to pay up to $780,000 to unsuccessful minority candidates, and reserve 12 positions for African-Americans and 18 for Hispanics in future Austin firefighter academies.

In response to a question from District 2 Council Member Delia Garza, Nicks said he wants to stop the RFP process and return to the bargaining table with the city. Garza is a former firefighter and an attorney.

“All I’m asking is if the policy makers don’t make decisions for 100 days, then the staff shouldn’t” either, Nicks said. However, city staff is anxious to move forward.

The city currently has 105 vacant positions at the department. City staff has recently instituted mandatory overtime in order to fill all the time slots to cover firefighters’ work shifts.

“I cannot stress to you enough how much of a concern this is that we fill the spots,” Chief Labor Relations Officer Deven Desai told Council. “Obviously, at some point fatigue will set in, and it’s something that the department is very concerned about as far as the proper way to run the department and serve our citizens.”

Mayor Steve Adler suggested that Council could look at the responses to the RFP before making a decision on whether to stop the process.

Nicks suggested that the city could save both time and money by hiring the minority cadets first. The easiest way to do that, he said, is to give a written exam to minority priority hires. Then those newly hired cadets could be integrated into the next class.

Council Members Pio Renteria and Greg Casar both seemed skeptical about proposals from the firefighters union.

“Police and EMS have been able to negotiate with the city,” said Renteria. “They have a lot more minorities that reflect the population here in Austin. … It kind of bothers me. … I can’t seem to understand the resistance” to allowing the city to move forward with hiring.

Following Nicks before the Council was Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. Casaday said the police felt it was best to relinquish control over hiring to the city.

“The city is allowed to hire whoever they want to,” Casaday said. “If they can make it through our field training program, we feel they can make it” as police officers.

Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin/Travis County EMS employees union, said his union is not concerned about either wages or hiring. For them, he said, the most important issues revolve around the power of the medical director to make decisions about credentialing and training behind closed doors. Marquardt said he was very grateful for the opportunity to speak to Council, noting that it was the first time the city had invited him to express his union’s concerns.


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