Union says Austin medics are leaving ‘in droves,’ negotiations with city begin Tuesday

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group of first responders says dozens are dropping out of their department, and they’d like the city to help shore up the gap.

Starting Tuesday at 9 a.m., the Austin EMS Association is the first to start negotiating agreements with the city, followed by the Austin Fire and Police Departments after the new year. The agreements expire September 2022.

If you want to be a medic with Austin-Travis County EMS, the president of its union says you’ll start at $19 an hour.

“In Austin, if you want to do EMS, you can work in the Tesla factory, you can work at Amazon and be paid $25 an hour,” said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association.

According to the city’s budget documents, EMS workers have seen pay increases between 1-2% each year for about five years.

This chart shows the five-year history of employee wage increases for the City of Austin for civilians, police, fire and EMS. (Source: City of Austin)
This chart shows the five-year history of employee wage increases for the City of Austin for civilians, police, fire and EMS. (Source: City of Austin)

Xie said that’s not enough for their medics — at least 80% of whom live outside of Austin. Xie also said about 30% of their medics are considered very low income in the city.

“At once, the city says you have to live within two hours of the City of Austin, but on the other hand, medics can’t even afford to do that,” she said.

Xie believes low pay is also the reason behind fewer applicants and cadets. They have only 16 for their December class, far short of their goal of 30 cadets.

This map shows where Austin-Travis County EMS workers live. The darker the red, the greater the number of employees who live there. (Source: Austin EMS Association)
This map shows where Austin-Travis County EMS workers live. The darker the red, the greater the number of employees who live there. (Source: Austin EMS Association)

“We’re not even getting enough qualified applicants to fill an entire class. That’s how different it is compared to EMS compared to fire and police,” she said.

Xie says they’re also working mandatory overtime through a pandemic without hazard pay — all factors leading to 50 medics leaving this year.

That’s more than the past four years, according to the labor union’s data, which shows 41 medics left in 2020, 28 in 2019, 44 in 2018 and 43 in 2017.

“One person specifically told me that they’re leaving, because they have had to work too much mandatory overtime, and that it was really starting to hurt their personal life and their mental health,” Xie said.

Her union will be asking for increased pay, hazard pay, reduced mandatory overtime and language stipends like AFD and APD have, to help fix their staffing shortage.

KXAN reached out to the city for comment about the negotiation process, but they were not able to speak with us on Monday.

In a press release Monday, the city’s chief labor relations officer said, “This will be a challenging time to negotiate from both a fiscal and COVID-19 standpoint,” but they are committed to transparency and fairness.

City budget documents show Austin-Travis County EMS workers have been able to keep up their response times, staying above 97% for the past four years and also projected to stay high for this year.

This graph shows The response times for Austin-Travis County EMS between fiscal years 2017 and 2021, according to the city's budget documents.
This graph shows The response times for Austin-Travis County EMS between fiscal years 2017 and 2021, according to the city’s budget documents.

But Xie worries staffing shortages may continue burnout and end up hurting these times in the future.

“We’ll never be able to catch up on staffing, unless we radically change things,” Xie said.

This year, the city will be livestreaming negotiations on its YouTube page. The session dates will be published on the Labor Relations Office’s webpage.

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