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EMS union urges city not to forget it

Tuesday, March 6, 2018 by Jack Craver

The union that represents the city’s paramedics is urging the city to come to the bargaining table and approve a new contract that will offer ambulance workers what it describes as a much-deserved 2 percent pay raise.

Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association, told the Public Safety Commission on Monday that while city management and City Council try to hammer out a contract with the police union they appear to be putting off addressing the emergency medical service employees’ concerns.

“Unlike Police and Fire, we were never afforded the opportunity to bring something to the dais for City Council to vote down or up,” he said.

When city management and the association reached a stalemate during contract negotiations in October, the association offered a short-term extension of the current contract, said Marquardt. The city rejected that offer.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the EMS department and its union are much smaller.

“The police have the resources. Our association is much smaller and we have no staff. This (police contract) has been overshadowing our issue,” he said.

As a result of the lack of contract, EMS employees, like police officers, are no longer operating under a collective bargaining contract. They are instead working based on work conditions and rules set by state law.

The union contends that the current lack of contract is part of a pattern of the city neglecting EMS employees. Since the first EMS contract executed with the city in 2013, employees have seen their pay rise 5.5 percent, compared to 12.5 percent for city employees who do not work in public safety departments, according to Craig Deats, the union’s lead negotiator.

And while Austin’s firefighters and police officers are paid more than their counterparts in other Texas cities, EMS employees are paid less than theirs, said Deats.

Because few municipalities have standalone EMS departments, finding appropriate comparisons for Austin’s paramedics is not as easy as it is for cops and firefighters.

However, Deats said that the city attempted to do so by comparing Austin EMS salaries to those of the EMS departments in Williamson County and Montgomery County. The city pointed out that an Austin EMS employee with 20 years of service was better-paid than those with the same tenure in Montgomery and Williamson.

Deats said it was absurd to compare pay based on what 20-year veterans are making because the great majority of EMS workers never make it that long. Two-thirds of the current workforce has 10 years or less of service.

While it’s true that EMS workers here make more at the end of their careers, they only do so after many years of making substantially less than in the comparison jurisdictions, said Deats. For instance, a starting EMS employee makes $39,861 a year, nearly $20,000 less than a starting employee in Williamson and nearly $9,000 less than in Montgomery.

The Williamson County EMS website says that the starting annual salary is approximately $56,000 but notes that that number is based on a 56-hour workweek. In contrast, Austin’s EMS workers are in the process of reducing their workweek from 48 to 42 hours.

However, pointed out Deats, the Montgomery County department only gets about half as many calls as Austin’s.

“We’re doing more and getting paid a lot less,” said Deats.

ATCEMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown said that department management was eager to return to a contract, but noted that the state civil service commission had just that morning approved a request from the department that will waive a state requirement that entry-level emergency medical technicians be employed for three years before they become paramedics, which offers them better pay and greater responsibilities.

The waiver would not have been necessary if the employees were still operating under a union contract, since state law allows cities broad discretion to negotiate different work rules through meet and confer agreements with unions representing public safety employees.

Marquardt said that he would be meeting with City Manager Spencer Cronk for the first time today and hopes a resolution comes quickly. City staff has told him that it will be conducting another study analyzing EMS employee pay here and elsewhere, but that it likely won’t be done before June.

Selena Xie, a paramedic who has been with the department for five years, said that she was also concerned about the impact that the lack of a contract will have on the department’s ability to recruit a more diverse workforce. Without a contract, the city must hire based on a state-sanctioned test, and it is not allowed to pursue other recruiting strategies aimed at boosting hiring among underrepresented racial, ethnic or gender groups.

“We are getting more diverse, and I don’t want to see a regression,” said Xie.

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

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