City Offers Pennies, Not Dollars, to Austin EMS

Medics find proposal insulting and inadequate amid enormous staffing crunch

After Austin's EMS union asked for a $7 increase to base hourly pay for entry level medics, the city came back with an offer of 39 cents per hour (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Five months after the Austin EMS Assoc­iation asked for a $7 per hour increase to the base wage of $19.56 per hour paid to entry-level medics, the city of Austin has presented a counteroffer – a 39 cent per hour increase in the first year of the four-year contract.

"This has been so heartbreaking," AEMSA President Selena Xie said last week during a public broadcast of the negotiations between her union and the city Labor Rela­tions Office. "The city's new wage proposal ... is very simply a danger to the public." Pay and benefits have become the prime sticking point in the talks, which began in December and were intended to be finalized by now, before the city turns to negotiate with the Austin Police Association and, later this year, the Austin Firefighters Association.

Austin medics are insulted by the city's counteroffer, as they've shared both with the Chronicle and via social media, so negotiations are likely to drag out even longer (the current contract expires in September). Under the city's proposal, the base wage for medics would increase by a total of 8%, or about $1.56, over four years – which Xie said is woefully inadequate. She noted that 26.4% of Austin medics are considered low-income and that they must work for 11 years at the department before earning a living wage in Austin. (The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that, in 2021, it required a $27.58 per hour wage to afford a two-­bedroom apartment rented at fair-market rates in the Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area. Also, the inflation rate over the past year was 8.5%.)

The proposed contract "creates irreparable damage to the recruiting and retention of Aus­tin EMS," Xie said, but the city says it's the best they can offer in the current fiscal environment. The city finance office is forecasting looming budget deficits due primarily to state-imposed limits on how much cities can increase property tax rates without seeking voter approval. The city is also wary of investing an amount into emergency medical services that they would have difficulty matching with police and fire.

"We value our medics and will continue to do what we can as a City to attract and retain the best medics for our citizens," read a city statement. "But we are unable to meet their request for a 55% base wage increase over 4 yearsand must remain fiscally responsible." It added that the city's pay proposal was based on a study conducted by a third-party consultant who looked exclusively at stand-alone EMS departments, like Austin's, rather than combined fire-EMS departments.

Another feature of the city's proposal is a change in EMS hiring practice that would let the department hire new employees directly into the paramedic position (formally known as "clinical specialists," which is the department's second-lowest rank). The city argues that allowing this practice would help reduce the department's staffing shortage – which Xie estimates to be about 25% and the greatest among all three public safety departments – because the paramedic base wage would then become $27.54 per hour.

The proposal has puzzled the union, however, because that hiring policy would reverse a practice the city pushed for – and the union resisted – in 2010. Back then, EMS had trouble hiring paramedics and required ambulances be staffed by two paramedics. So two policy changes were instituted: Ambulances could be staffed with one emergency medical technician (the entry-level EMS position) and one paramedic, and every new hire into the department would enter as an EMT but could be fast-tracked for promotion as warranted.

Today, the union argues that even when the department was able to hire directly into the paramedic position, it faced a staffing shortage. Reverting to that hiring practice would likely not change that, says Xie, because the department is facing retention issues on the front lines. A base wage increase there, primarily impacting EMTs, would be more effective at filling staffing vacancies and not require the department to pull ambulances from service due to insufficient staffing.

From here, the union and city will likely trade counter offers in an attempt to find middle ground between the $7 per hour and 39 cent per hour increases to the base wage. If the parties cannot agree on a figure, the union could request a federal mediator come in and help reconcile the two positions – something Xie says the union is considering.

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