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As talks end, EMS union, city at stalemate

Thursday, November 2, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Unlike the unions for police officers and firefighters, the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Employee Association could not reach an agreement with city of Austin management on Monday. Employees will continue to work under civil service rules, but there is no raise for them on the horizon.

The union, led by its president, Tony Marquardt, blamed Interim City Manager Elaine Hart’s team for the failure to reach an agreement or extend the current contract for 30 days in order to keep negotiating. The contract officially expired at midnight Monday.

According to Marquardt, the city management team “broke off negotiations on Monday” with the union, and refused to agree to a 30-day extension of its contract as proposed by the union.

However, Interim Labor Relations Officer Larry Watts told the Austin Monitor Wednesday that Marquardt had refused to actually negotiate on Monday even though the city team was willing to stay at the table until midnight to try to reach some kind of agreement.

Watts explained that Marquardt wanted a 30-day extension of the contract and five or six days to work on an economic proposal, even though the two sides were $8 million apart. “I said, ‘Tony, we’re not willing to do that because we want to see if we can make some progress. We’re $8 million apart and we need to get much closer than that in order for us to believe there would be any reason to continue sitting across the table and talking,” Watts said. “We need to get much closer than that.”

Even though public safety, which includes EMS, police and firefighters, accounts for 66 percent of the city’s General Fund budget, the EMS department only accounts for 4.2 percent of that fund, according to figures provided by the union.

National studies show that Austin’s police officers and firefighters are paid more than the national average, but its EMS employees are not. According to a YouTube video explaining the union’s position, Austin-Travis County EMS places in the top 10 highest paid in the nation, “but not in the top five, where we should be.”

One of the reasons EMS employees believe that their salaries should be on par with police and firefighters is that the fatality rate for EMS workers is just as high as for police and firefighters, but EMS has higher call volumes, according to Marquardt. He said Wednesday that one reason EMS has such a high mortality rate is vehicle accidents. Another reason, he said, is the danger presented when EMS employees go to the scene of a volatile situation, where they may be killed or injured while doing their jobs.

One of the big problems for EMS is workforce stability. Marquardt said the association has presented ideas to management to try to shore up the workforce, but they were rejected.

Watts told the Monitor, “We made some proposals to them regarding how paramedics are paid. That’s been an issue that they talked about throughout the negotiations. We had made proposals to address what they had identified as the problem,” and offered on Monday “to pay a special stipend to paramedics who were still in the Medic 1 rank, so we wouldn’t lose them.”

In addition, he said management has also put another proposal on the table concerning hiring paramedics at the Medic 2 level, so they would immediately earn a higher salary.

According to Watts, the union team took the proposals and studied them for several hours, but came back at five o’clock and said it did not have time to put together its economic proposal.

“We tried very hard all day to get them to actually mediate the issues that were still on the table, and not once did they give us a counterproposal. They didn’t tell us whether they liked or didn’t like the proposal we put on the table, and then at the end of the day,” said they didn’t have time to prepare a proposal. “If you view that as us walking away from the table, I would just disagree seriously,” Watts concluded.

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

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