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Commission urges city to raise EMS pay

Tuesday, May 3, 2022 by Jo Clifton

The Public Safety Commission approved a broad resolution Monday calling on the city to raise its offer to the Austin EMS union to pay salaries comparable to what other EMS agencies are paying. EMS salaries should be equivalent to what the city is paying firefighters and police officers and what is offered in the private market, commissioners said. Commission Chair Rebecca Bernhardt and Commissioner Rebecca Webber sponsored the resolution, which won support from all six members present for the vote.

Commissioners heard from Selena Xie, the president of the EMS union, but did not hear the city’s side of the story. That’s because no city representative attended the meeting, even though the matter has been on the agenda for some time. Commissioners expressed varying degrees of annoyance that the city spokesperson not only failed to attend but failed to inform commissioners they were not coming. Commissioner Rocky Lane said the city’s failure to attend Monday’s meeting was “a slap in the face.”

A city staff member said Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday, who was also scheduled on the agenda, called to say he would not be attending.

Xie told commissioners that, while Austin’s emergency medical technicians do very well by the end of their time with the city, newer employees struggle to pay rent and heating bills. She said she had personally signed checks to help EMTs pay bills. At the same time, she said just a few days ago, the city of Lake Forest, north of Dallas-Fort Worth, announced its new pay scale, which is better than Austin’s. Montgomery County and Cy-Fair near Houston have also announced wage increases putting them ahead of Austin in salaries.

Xie said any number of people have hired on with ATCEMS while waiting to hear from the police or fire department. They work for emergency services for three months, then quit once they get an offer from APD or AFD. Xie said police officers start at $30 an hour and firefighters make about $8,000 more at the end of the first year. She told the Austin Monitor that the city had increased its initial offer from an extra 14 cents an hour to an extra 28 cents an hour, bringing the proposed starting salary to $19.89/hour.

“What the city is offering is not enough to keep up with the increasing cost of living in Austin,” Xie said, and “it’s not helping us keep up with the market rate for paramedics and EMTs.” The union is seeking $27 an hour to start.

The city and the EMS union will return to the bargaining table today. A city spokesman told the Monitor, “We will meet with a federal mediator in the hopes of bridging the gap between the city and the AEMSA. We are hopeful these negotiations will result in a contract that will work for everyone. We appreciate that these processes take time. The topics negotiated are critical to the short- and long-term stability and well-being for our employees and the fiscal responsibility we owe to our taxpayers.”

The city has lost at least 27 emergency medical employees this year and Commissioner Lane pleaded passionately for his colleagues to address the issue, saying the crisis would only get worse if the city does not step up and pay more. Lane also argued that Austin should not be compared just to cities in Texas, but to similar cities around the nation. Bernhardt accepted his amendment and it was added to the resolution.

Alyssa Magnum, the most recent EMS employee to announce her departure, told the Monitor she started with Austin-Travis County EMS in 2015 and put in her letter of resignation last week after hearing that the city was offering a 14-cent-an-hour raise. Ultimately, the fact that she “can literally go work anywhere else” and make more money convinced her to quit. But money was not the only reason.

Magnum, 27, started with ATCEMS in 2015. Up until two years ago, she said, the agency was fully staffed and was a good work environment, so she didn’t mind so much that she and her co-workers were getting what she called “mediocre” pay. That changed with Covid and Winter Storm Uri.

She described working back-to-back 24-hour shifts in an agency down by almost 150 medics. And those who were not actually sick but needed to take a personal day to rest “got in trouble for it.” Magnum, who lives in Buda, said many of her co-workers cannot afford to live in Austin. She also complained that EMS workers frequently respond to the same calls as police and firefighters, such as fires and shootings, yet their pay and retirement benefits are significantly less than their colleagues.

Asked why so many EMS workers are quitting, Austin EMS Chief of Staff Teresa Gardner told commissioners that the agency hired a lot of people 20-25 years ago and they are now retiring. “On the opposite end, we have had some that have left for other opportunities, to return to where their families are from, so it’s really a mix” of reasons.

A city spokesperson sent the Monitor an email explaining the city’s position. According to that email, the city has offered:

  • A 2 percent base wage increase in the first year, with a total base wage increase of 8 percent over four years. In the first year, the lowest-paid employee would get a 39-cent-an-hour raise while others with more experience would get over a $1-an-hour raise. This does not include additional pay increases based on an employee’s tenure with the department. On top of the base wage increase, medics receive a 5 percent increase in pay after their first year of service, another 5 percent increase at year three and additional 7 percent increases multiple times in further-out years.
  • Entry-level paramedics could have started at $27.54 an hour, which is more than 5 percent higher than any of Austin’s competitors in Texas. The city adds that hiring entry-level paramedics would be an effective way to help reduce vacancies quickly, though state law requires cities to obtain agreement by the association to hire at the paramedic level instead of the EMT level.
  • Over $17 million in new money over four years, which is a 51 percent increase from 2018’s agreement of $11.4 million over four years in new money.

Further, “According to our pay study, the maximum pay for Austin EMTs and paramedics is higher than that of comparable agencies when you adjust wages for regional costs.”

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