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No hiring freeze for public safety employees

Friday, April 3, 2020 by Jo Clifton

While most city departments are exploring how to do more with fewer employees in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Austin’s public safety departments are currently on track to continue hiring as previously budgeted.

Emergency Medical Services spokesperson Captain Christa Stedman told the Austin Monitor on Thursday the department has filled 529 sworn positions, with 62 vacancies. Although the recently announced hiring freeze does not apply to EMS, every new hire must go through an interview process that requires several people to be in one room at the same time, she said. Those interviews have been put on hold in order to follow social distancing guidelines.

Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Employees Association, said she was surprised to hear that the interviews were being put on hold. “Generally we’re considered essential employees and we continue to have classes for our cadets,” she said. However, she expects the problem to resolve itself once the shelter-in-place order is lifted.

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks said Thursday that AFD’s ranks are down by about 112 firefighters. Of that number, five have been deployed by the military and 107 have either retired or quit. The department is looking forward to swearing in 76 new firefighters when they complete their cadet training.

According to Nicks, one class will graduate in early April and a second class will graduate toward the end of May. Due to the unusual circumstances created by Covid-19, the department has shaved off a few weeks of training for each group in order to get them through their training program as expeditiously as possible.

He said the cadets will not be able to take some of their final tests because social distancing rules make it impossible for the state evaluators to administer the tests at this time. Nicks said the Texas Commission on Fire Protection understands that Covid-19 is a unique situation and will administer the tests later.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said Thursday that anyone who has applied to be an officer and is in the hiring process “will be okay.”

APD spokesperson Stephanie Jacksis said the police department has 152 vacancies, with 1,959 authorized positions. Although the downtown area is unusually quiet right now, once the pandemic is over and bars and restaurants have reopened, the Downtown Commission’s call for more officers will likely be renewed. But City Council will have some tough decisions to make this summer when presented with any number of urgent requests and a shrinking bank balance.

This story has been changed since publication to correct the number of APD vacancies which is 152, not 125.

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