Austin Pets Alive! Workers File to Become Largest Animal Shelter Union in the U.S.

Working conditions “are the living conditions of the animals”

Photo by Jana Birchum

Back in 2022, when Austin was starting to become aware of its increasingly overcrowded animal shelters, Austin Pets Alive! employees reached out to the Chronicle to detail their dissatisfaction with their jobs.

They felt management disrespected them and retaliated when staff spoke out about poor working conditions. APA’s president, Dr. Ellen Jefferson, posited that the aging Town Lake Animal Center contributed to feelings of burnout (last fall, the city and APA finally reached a deal for improving conditions at TLAC, though it won't increase capacity at all). That overcrowding crisis has continued into 2024, and apparently, so has the employee dissatisfaction.

Last week, 200 APA employees announced they are filing for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board to join the National Veterinary Professionals Union and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. APA employee Ryan Martinez said staff “recognized that we weren't treated properly, and that it impacted the lives of our animals. The living conditions for our animals weren't reaching standards that APA strives for.”

So what’s causing less-than-desirable conditions? “Right now, there is a little bit of a disconnect between how management and staff communicate,” said Ellis Avallone, a data engineer at APA. “We want to make sure that we have a codified seat at the table.” That communication is essential, Martinez pointed out, because of the often-specialized nature of employees’ work with animals – APA’s contract with the city requires them to take a certain number of animals with behavioral or medical issues from the city shelter every month. “Essentially, we realize that the people who should be making the calls about how to work with our animals should be the people who work with our animals.”

The union drive has received support from Council Member Zo Qadri and Congressman Greg Casar but has not received voluntary recognition from APA management. In its petition to gather support from the community, the union writes, “while APA has rejected APAW’s request for voluntary recognition, APAW [Austin Pets Alive! Workers Union] hopes that management remains neutral as employees exercise their right to unionize.”

“Ultimately, our working conditions are the living conditions of the animals,” said Avallone.

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