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Council delays decision on EMS staffing issues

Wednesday, December 23, 2015 by Jack Craver

City Council heard two competing narratives over a staffing shortage in the City of Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services communications and dispatch section of its discussion last week, as department management urged Council to approve an ordinance that would eliminate a midlevel employee classification so that some entry-level employees could fill positions currently reserved for more senior personnel.

Given concerns raised about the ordinance by a representative of the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association, Council voted unanimously to postpone further discussion to its Jan. 28 meeting, with plans for the Public Safety Committee to address the issue beforehand at its Jan. 25 meeting.

“It would be good if conversations could happen between now and the 25th of January so that what is brought to the Public Safety Committee is a resolution of this, so that we can talk about that rather than trying to problem-solve at the committee level,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, one of the four committee members.

Teresa Gardner, an assistant chief at Austin-Travis County EMS, said that the department currently lacks “Medic 2” communications positions and does not have any lower-level employees eligible to be promoted into those roles. However, all of the entry-level “Medic 1” positions are filled. The department thus finds itself in a situation where it can’t hire more entry-level communications employees, but it can’t find workers to fill the higher-level positions. The result is a 20 percent vacancy in communications, which has led to more overtime hours for existing staff.

Asked by Mayor Steve Adler about the potential implications of delaying a decision on the matter for two months, Gardner said that the department would continue to accrue overtime costs.

Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin/Travis County EMS Employee Association, said that eliminating positions for workers to be promoted into would not address the underlying problem causing the staffing shortage. The problem, he argued, was the city’s inability to retain EMS personnel.

“We don’t disagree that there need to be some adjustments to expeditiously tackle some of the issues relating to vacancies; however, this is a single solution that hasn’t been thoroughly vetted yet,” Marquardt said.

“The root problem is that we need more staffing in (communications) – to arrive at that by taking away promotable positions is questionable,” he added.

Marquardt also noted that there are unfilled managerial positions and pointed out that the department was not proposing eliminating them. “If we are merely to ask for a reclassification by eliminating a vacant position to create a different position to solve this problem, I could well in turn suggest that we have a vacant assistant chief position, which would very well create four Medic 1 positions,” he said.

The department is growing, but its employees aren’t sticking around long enough to fulfill some senior positions, he later told the Austin Monitor. Many of them are seeking better-paying positions with the fire department. “We don’t have parity with the other public safety agencies,” he said.

The department has been able to receive waivers from requirements that Medic 2 employees have a certain level of seniority, but it nevertheless struggles to attract applicants to the position because of “scheduling issues and fairness issues,” said Marquardt, who predicted that the department would soon face similar staffing issues in its field operations.

Furthermore, he said, Council already recently approved other reclassifications for the current fiscal year. While he supported that move, he suggested that the department’s new request for classification adjustments displays a troubling lack of long-term staffing planning. For the city to continuously grant its reclassification requests has the effect of encouraging constant stop-gap measures.

The meet-and-confer agreement authorized in 2013 between the city and the EMS union calls for a 1 percent base wage increase in the 2015-16 fiscal year and a 2 percent increase for 2016-17.

Photo by Adreanna Moya made available through a Creative Commons license.

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