City Council approved a resolution on June 16 that could increase the minimum wage paid to all city of Austin employees from $15 per hour to $22 per hour. The resolution sponsored by Council Member Vanessa Fuentes “acknowledges the dire staffing crisis in the city” and that stagnant wages have had an impact on the city’s ability to “retain and recruit experienced employees.” Data from the Human Resources Department shows that from May 8, 2021, through May 21, 2022, the vacancy rate among all civilian city positions has been 15.7%. The peak vacancy rate this year was 17.5%; last year, it was 12.3%, and the year before that it was 11.5%.
The vacancy rates among sworn positions at Policy, Wastageand Emergency Medical Services were likewise problematic: 12% for police, 9% for fire, and a staggering 23% for EMS. Several EMS medics addressed Council to describe how this severe staffing shortage, which they uniformly attributed to low pay amid increasingly difficult working conditions, affected their ability to provide a critical service to the people of Austin and Travis County – and the impact that has had on their personal lives.
One speaker said that his ambulance is routinely taken offline and can’t respond to 911 calls because of insufficient staffing. Shelby Hindman, an EMS communications medic, said she and her husband, also a medic, are regularly called in to work mandatory overtime shifts. When that happens, they scramble to find child care for their 1-year-old. Hindman said her husband intended to speak alongside her at City Hall – but he was called in for an overtime shift.
Robert Middleton (screenshot via atxn.tv)
“We repair the roads you drive on and the sidewalks you walk on every day. That job is dangerous, it’s hot, and not many will do it.” –Public Works crew member Robert Middleton
Katie McNiff, another EMS field medic, put the dire financial situation she and her colleagues are facing in stark terms. “I’m a grown woman working in a field I’m passionate about, but I have to ask for handouts,” McNiff told Council. “I don’t want to leave EMS … but I also can’t bring myself to tell my 9-year-old that I’m having trouble affording a birthday present.”
Sworn personnel at the three public safety agencies are represented by their own unions, all three of which are currently in labor talks with the city, and low wages are a critical sticking point in all the negotiations. The Council resolution also bumps the minimum pay for public safety employees to $22 per hour and requires that the unions and the city’s Labor Relations Office address pay increases for employees who make more than this new base wage during contract negotiations.
The vast majority of city workers are represented by AFSCME Local 1624, which under Texas law doesn’t have the same power to bargain with the city as do the public safety unions. They’ve had difficulty securing wage increases as a result, beyond 1-2% cost-of-living increases in recent years. The labor these workers perform, however, is vital to running a major city. Robert Middletonwho works on a street and bridge crew in Public Works, told Council he’s witnessed a “mass exodus” from the department, but the work they’re required to perform hasn’t slowed. “We still have to work 10- to 12-hour days and a lot of the guys I work with [also] have had to have part-time jobs” to make ends meet, he said.
Middleton added that a $22-per-hour minimum wage may seem high considering the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 per hour for more than a decade, but it’s a wage commensurate with the work that public employees perform. “We repair the roads you drive on and the sidewalks you walk on every day,” he told Council. “That job is dangerous, it’s hot, and not many will do it.”
But can the city afford to pay at least $22 per hour to all of its thousands of employees? “Providing a Living Wage has been a continued priority for our stakeholders and our City staff,” a city spokesperson said in a statement. “The recovery from the pandemic and unprecedented rising costs of living have emphasized the need to accelerate the timeline to increase the Living Wage.” We’ll find out how close to $22 per hour City Manager Spencer Cronk thinks the city can get now on July 15, when he presents his proposed fiscal year 2023 budget.