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With Labor Dispute Focused On Police, Austin's EMS Union Feels Overlooked

Martin do Nascimento
The Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association's contract with the city expired on Oct. 30.

Austin police officers aren't the only public safety personnel without an employment contract with the city. For the first time in nearly 10 years, EMS employees are without a contract, too.

Tony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Employee Association, said that because police is the largest of the public safety departments, it overshadowed emergency medical services.

Right now, the city spends 67 percent of its general fund on public safety. Only 4 percent goes to EMS, according to the labor union. (A city spokesperson says the number is closer to 8 percent.) The rest goes to the Austin police and fire departments, and city data show that they are some of the highest paid public safety employees in the region.

It’s a different story with EMS.

“It turns out we’re below market and by a significant amount,” Marquardt says. "[The paramedic profession] is a difficult profession and highly in demand. We’re below nationally, we’re below regionally, and we’re below locally.”

Last spring, the association decided to begin bargaining for a new five-year contract. It requested a 2 percent raise each year for its employees to make Austin-Travis County EMS more competitive and help employees combat the rising cost of living. Marquardt said the raise would help the department fill about 75 open positions.

After negotiations with Austin's interim labor relations team, the city declared an impasse in October. The city's negotiating team said the union was asking for around $8 million more than it was willing to offer.

Now, EMS employees are working under civil service rules, which allow them to keep their current salaries, but offers no chance for raises.

Rebecca Webber, chairwoman of Austin’s Public Safety Commission, says she’s disappointed that the city’s negotiating team decided to walk away.

“I think it showed a lack of respect for the hard work that our paramedics do,” she said, "and it showed a lack of valuing them."

A spokesperson for the city's labor relations team declined to comment for this story. But in December, City Council members decided that they’d like to see EMS back under contract. Council Member Leslie Pool even expressed remorse. 

“I kind of feel bad for what has happened with EMS, because when we took up all three of the first-responder contracts, we did fire and then police and then EMS came in at the end,” she said. “When we got to [EMS] there wasn’t any money left.”

City Council has asked the union to provide it a new report by mid-February. The goal is to get EMS employees back on their old contract until the union picks up negotiations again this summer.

This post has been updated to include a response from the city about how its general fund on public safety is divided among departments. 

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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