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City, EMS labor negotiations likely to continue

Tuesday, November 7, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Even though its negotiating team declared an impasse with the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Employee Association last week, City Council appears prepared to direct staff to resume negotiations, but not immediately.

Council members Ann Kitchen, Delia Garza, Leslie Pool and Mayor Steve Adler are sponsoring a resolution this week directing the city manager to maintain the working conditions and salaries set forth in the contract that expired Oct 30. The resolution also directs the city manager to resume negotiations with the EMS union.

Larry Watts, the city’s interim labor relations officer, declined to seek a 30-day extension of a contract that had already been extended for 30 days because the two sides were still more than $7 million apart on Oct. 30.

Interim City Manager Elaine Hart explained during last Thursday’s Council meeting that these negotiations had been exceptionally difficult. “I don’t have sufficient financial flexibility or sustainability in this year’s approved budget to meet the association’s request, and that’s why I did not direct my staff to continue the negotiations,” she said.

According to EMS Chief Ernie Rodriguez, it would have taken an additional $5.5 to $7 million to close the gap between what the city was offering and what the association was seeking.

Even if the union had been willing to reduce its request by a million dollars, Hart said, she still would have been required to dip into reserves, using “one-time money to pay for an ongoing contract cost,” which is something she could not recommend.

Hart described the city’s offer as making “very critical improvements in changing step pay in the early years to address the paramedic issue and the turnover that we have. We have a very rich contract.”

It has been difficult for the city to find a comparable EMS department in Texas because there are very few standalone EMS departments, with most having been consolidated with fire departments.

As negotiators explained the difficulties of comparing Austin with other markets, several Council members indicated that they understood and agreed that the city has a problem in making those comparisons. Council Member Ora Houston, for example, said comparing Austin’s EMS to other standalone services, such as in Montgomery County, north of Houston, was like comparing “apples to bananas.”

Hart told the mayor and Council in a memo sent on Friday that she intends to hire a compensation analysis firm to “provide reliable information about whether there are any real market ‘apples-to-apples comparables’ and, if not, that can help us identify how best to benchmark EMS pay in this marketplace.” She said she intended to start work on the request for proposal process immediately so that the city might advertise it by Dec. 15.

Rodriguez nearly broke into tears last Thursday when describing the dangers that his employees face on a daily basis. “We have a happy, weird and beautiful Austin. But we have another Austin. And the other Austin people are desperate. Equality is a daily struggle for them. It’s their daily fight.” He said his medics are being assaulted more, threatened and shot at.

Those medics, he said, “are highly skilled, highly trained, young, spunky. They have attitude and they go out there every day and they face it the other Austin that most of us don’t want to know about. They face dangers that the rest of us don’t really think about. … We have an opportunity right now to send them a message that we care about them and that we value them, and we need to step up. We need to do that. We owe them that.”

He then asked Council to maintain the status quo for employee salaries. He also proposed that the step program, which increases pay as employees become more experienced and advance in the hierarchy, continue.

Rodriguez also said that he would like to be able to continue to implement part of the old contract that allowed him to order counseling for medics who under civil service rules might be suspended instead.

EMS Assistant Chief Jasper Brown explained to the Austin Monitor one of the situations in which the negotiated contract was superior for both the city and employees. If Council does not approve an ordinance directing otherwise, Brown said the civil service law would be in effect. Under that law, the chief can suspend an employee for 15 days, for example, for anger management issues. Under the provisions of the expired contract, the chief could talk to the employee about getting counseling, or in some cases re-training, instead of being suspended.

Brown said on Monday that he expects his department to bring that ordinance to Council for its approval on Dec. 7.

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

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