Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, the public organization that manages the county’s ambulances and medics, has lost its employment contract after negotiations with the city came to an impasse this week.
After representatives for the agency could not come to an agreement with Austin officials on issues such as compensation and credentialing, the employment rules for the organization will now instead be based on Texas local government code.
Austin interim City Manager Elaine Hart declined the EMS union’s request for a contract extension Monday, and the contract has since expired, city officials said. Even with a third-party mediator — which the Austin Police Department did not require for its own negotiations with the city, though the Austin Fire Department did — city officials and EMS union representatives couldn’t come to an agreement.
EMS representatives said the city gave up too early, but city officials said they felt it was futile to continue. The chairwoman of the city’s Public Safety Commission said she was disappointed by city officials’ decision to stop negotiating.
“In the short term, Austinites aren’t losing anything. EMS medics will continue giving care to citizens,” said Rebecca Webber, who heads the advisory group that issues public safety recommendations to the Austin City Council. “But as far as medics go, this is a big blow. The pay and the benefits issues are a big deal, and this will affect morale, which is already low.”
A major focus of the negotiations was compensation. The base pay for medics ranges from a minimum of $39,861 to a maximum of $70,587 (higher-ranking paramedics earn more). While raise amounts were still under negotiation, there was a nearly $8 million difference in what EMS was seeking in its budget and what the city was seeking, said Larry Watts, with the city’s Labor Relations Department.
Anthony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS union, said medics feel undervalued in Austin compared with police and firefighters. Medics receive a 10 percent salary increase in their first three years in Austin, compared with the 24 percent and 29 percent increases that Austin police officers and firefighters receive, respectively. After 10 years, medics see a 35 percent rise in pay, while officers and firefighters receive a 42 percent increase.
Marquardt said he feels both sides could have come to an agreement eventually.
“I’m disappointed,” Marquardt said. “Our team made a sincere effort to engage in the process. … I think we weren’t far if we’d had a few more weeks.”
Watts said he thinks that’s unlikely. EMS representatives were focused on getting an extension Monday when city officials were far more intent on reaching a final agreement.
“Sometimes you reach a point where you just feel there is no progress being made, and yesterday was that day,” Watts told the American-Statesman on Tuesday.
Webber said the city manager’s office’s decision to find common ground with the city’s fire and police departments, but not with EMS, is insulting to the county’s medics.
“There has been a theme coming back to the Public Safety Commission about a real morale problem at EMS, and yet, employees continue to work hard, they continue to do a good job,” she said. “They always feel like they’re the third-most important (of the city’s three public safety agencies), and the city manager’s office, by doing this, has said, yes, that’s true.”
Watts said he disagrees with that characterization.
“We put proposals on the table to address nearly every single issue,” he said.
Additionally, EMS asked that the contract be changed so that it would only hire credentialed paramedics in the future, Marquardt said. Currently, the service is only required to hire emergency medical technicians, positions that require less training.
Paramedic training takes two years, while EMT training only takes a semester, he said. Personnel are required to be paramedics to qualify for certain promotions. Marquardt said he believes this change could have improved retention at Austin-Travis County EMS.
City officials argued that this was impractical because there is a shortage of credentialed paramedics in the industry, but EMS officials argued that they could attract the right applicants with the right compensation, Marquardt said.