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EMS leader seeks changes in retirement system

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Selena Xie, the newly elected president of the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Employee Association, has a mission. She wants to change the retirement system for EMS workers so it is more in line with the systems for other public safety workers.

Xie said the current requirements for making EMS employees eligible for full retirement benefits are “not really conscionable or humane given what we see.” She pointed out that medics and paramedics must attend to people injured in horrific traffic accidents and other ways.

“It is not humane to ask us to work 30 years and it is not standard across the industry,” she said. “Many medics leave after five years and many have explicitly said it is because of the retirement issue, and many of them have sought employment with APD and the fire department.” She said the retirement system needs to be changed to encourage EMS employees to stay on longer.

Under current law, police can retire after 20 years of service and firefighters after 23 years of service with full benefits. They have two entirely separate retirement systems from the regular city of Austin retirement system. However, EMS employees are part of the regular city system and must abide by its regulations.

In 2010, city financial planners were worried about the solvency of their retirement system and Council voted to create a second tier of employees beginning on Jan. 1, 2012, with fewer benefits. Anyone who worked for the city prior to that date would be eligible for retirement at age 62 with at least five years of credit in the employees retirement system. Also, anyone with 23 years of service credit could receive full retirement benefits at any age.

However, employees who joined the city retirement system after Jan. 1, 2012, would not be able to receive a monthly benefit for life until age 65 with five years service or age 62 with 30 years of service credit.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who is the Council representative for the city’s Employees Retirement System, agrees with that goal but cautions that the undertaking will mean “months and months of hard work.” She expressed her willingness to work with Xie and others to help bring about a change.

Pool explained that at the time Council voted for that plan, EMS employees were not “sworn” as they are now.

She said the requirement to have 30 years of service at age 62 “is a pretty stiff requirement,” much more so than requirements for retirees from the state of Texas or Travis County.

Xie and Pool acknowledged that Tony Marquardt, who served as president of the EMS employees union for six years prior to Xie’s election in December, worked on the issue during his tenure.

Xie wants to explore the option of allowing EMS employees to be considered part of what is called Group A, employees who joined the city before 2012. She said anecdotally about one half of 1 percent of EMS employees – or about 20 people – have ever retired from the city because of their short tenure, the difficult work and the onerous rules.

She said any pension fund should be happy to have the EMS employees because so few of them actually retire even though they put money into the fund.

The Austin Monitor asked Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, if he thought his group would be open to EMS employees joining their retirement system. He pointed out that the pension fund is managed by an independent board of directors. “A couple of years ago the EMS people came” to talk to the board about joining, he said. The response from the pension board was that in order for EMS employees to be part of their pension fund, EMS would have to merge with the fire department and its employees become firefighters.

Xie said she will be working with Pool and others in the city to come up with the plan to present to her membership before the next legislative session, though she does not plan to pursue the matter this year after just two weeks on the job.

This story has been corrected since publication. Photo by Andreanna Moya made available through a Creative Commons license.

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