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Council OKs short-term EMS contract

Friday, March 23, 2018 by Jo Clifton

City Council approved without comment a six-month contract with the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Employee Association on Thursday that essentially duplicates their previous contract. Members of the union approved the contract in voting that ended Wednesday night.

Between now and the end of September, the two sides will try to negotiate a long-term contract.

As the Austin Monitor reported in January, the point of contention between the city and the EMS union has been the union’s request for a 2 percent raise while the city was offering only one-quarter of 1 percent. According to Deven Desai, the city’s chief labor relations officer, that gap equals more than $7 million.

Desai explained to Council Thursday that by agreeing to the deal the city would regain flexibility in making promotions and be able to fill vacancies in the Medic 2 rank faster than they are able to do under state law.

Employees will be paid a lump sum of 1.25 percent of their salaries, with a one-time cost to the city of $450,000, Desai explained.

In addition, the city will provide specialty pay for three categories of employees. Employees who are qualified to work in special operations will receive an extra $175 per month, as they did under the previous contract. Employees who are bilingual and assigned to the bilingual program will receive an extra $150 per month. Employees with a bachelor’s degree will also receive an extra $150 per month and those with a master’s will get an extra $200 per month, Desai said.

Association President Tony Marquardt will regain his association business leave hours, which means that he can work full time on union business rather than acting as a paramedic.

Desai told Council that he expects the results of a wage study funded by the city to come back in June. However, he said it is possible that the city and the union can start negotiating before that.

Marquardt told the Monitor that the city has already seen the results of two studies that show that Austin-Travis County EMS employees are underpaid. He said they did not want to simply believe those studies.

Marquardt said EMS is authorized to have 550 personnel, but 70 of those positions are vacant. One reason for that is that there is a nationwide shortage of paramedics, he said, and Austin is “below market for paramedics.”

Because Austin is paying wages that are below what even conservative governments pay paramedics, Marquardt said, “we cannot hire and retain all of the fine paramedics like Austin used to. We used to be a Mecca for paramedics.”

Then the city introduced a lessening of credentials for entry-level employees. Paramedics that go work for the city of Austin now are not paid a living wage and qualify for government assistance, such as food stamps, he said.

If the union is going to lock itself into a five-year contract, Marquardt said, “we need to have a wage that values paramedics.”

Marquardt said union members voted to preserve their current wages, not in order to gain what he called “their crappy lump sum.”

For Marquardt, and presumably many of his union’s members, it seems particularly unfair to EMS workers to be below market in the city that pays its police so much above the market.

Council rejected a contract with the Austin Police Association in December, with some members saying the price was simply too high. Austin’s labor negotiator, Larry Watts, said that the contract would actually have brought the department closer in line with pay at departments across the state – from 13.6 percent above the next-highest base pay rate to 10.7 percent above.

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

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