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EMS union, city at odds over pay

Tuesday, April 12, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Twenty-six Emergency Medical Services employees have quit their city jobs so far this year, and according to Austin-Travis County EMS Association President Selena Xie, that’s double the number of separations in 2020 and 2021. She added that, in all of 2019, before the pandemic, 28 medics left the city. She blames required overtime and low pay for her colleagues’ rush to the exits.

The union and the city are currently negotiating a new contract and seem very far from reaching an agreement. The current contract expires in September.

The base pay for new medics is currently $19.56 per hour. The city is offering to raise that to $19.70, an hourly increase of just 14 cents. That offer caused the EMS union to change its Twitter handle to “Worth more than 14 cents.”

Despite that, a city spokesperson said the city is offering “an unprecedented pay package,” claiming that the city’s proposal would provide a 15 percent increase to 70 percent of EMS employees and a 24 percent increase to 29 percent of EMS workers.

While the union agrees that the package is unprecedented, it says the city is wrong in stating that under the proposal “entry level pay for paramedics would be higher than any other governmental entity in Texas.”

In a lengthy rebuttal to the spokesperson’s statement, the union points out that the Cy-Fair Fire Department, which has a standalone EMS division, offers an initial pay rate of $30 an hour. “Their market survey determined that this would be the necessary starting wage to compete in the present and future paramedic marketplace. This is the market value Austin EMS will be competing against over the next five years,” the union stated. Five years is the length of the contract.

Xie said the union is seeking $27 an hour to start, a rate that would allow the city’s medics to pay their bills and feed their families. According to Xie, “26.4 percent of Austin’s medics are considered low income (and) qualify for Section 8 housing.” She said they must work for the city for 11 years “just to meet the living wage with the family.” She noted that Austin has one of the highest 911 call volume systems in the nation.

Austin medics are required to work regular shifts plus overtime because of the numerous vacancies. The union and the city are pointing fingers at each other over this issue too. According to a city spokesperson, “The union raised concerns about staffing shortages and overtime. We addressed those issues head-on, offering to hire directly into the paramedic rank. Our offer would have aided in reducing the existing vacancies. It is surprising that the union chose to hold off on prioritizing their members’ work/life balance.”

The EMS union responded that it is the one raising the work/life balance question, saying it has consistently raised concerns to the city “over the misuse of EMS labor to cover for operational failures.”

“This includes the city doubling mandatory overtime for Austin medics. The city is not approaching this issue head-on. It’s reacting to the operational failures which have created a 25 percent exodus in the EMS workforce, followed by consistently damaging recruiting efforts,” which the city’s proposal exacerbates.

Xie said the union might be able to come back with a response to the city’s proposal later this week. City Council Member Leslie Pool, one of the union’s strongest supporters, declined to comment on any specifics, but said, “It’s clear to me that a whole lot more negotiation is ahead for us.”

Pool and other Council members are acutely aware of the impending tough budget sessions that await them. While there are many needs, including public safety and housing, the city is required to abide by the 3.5 percent tax cap enacted by the Texas Legislature. Council members were able to go above that last year because of a disaster declaration, but if they wish to do so this year they will have to ask voters for permission. That’s very unlikely to happen.

Photo, which has been edited, made available through a Creative Commons license.

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