A slap in the face
Austin's paramedics and EMS union negotiations false start
When I read that the City of Austin offered a mere $0.14 cents raise for Austin’s EMS professionals, I immediately thought back to a negotiation of my own on Labor Day Weekend of 1995.
I was 12 years old, and my 7th grade year had just begun. I had been cutting grass for neighbors for about a year, and had yet to spend the summer working for my grandfather’s small landscaping business in Houston (that wouldn’t be until ‘96). I may have only been 5 feet and 110 pounds soaking wet, but I knew how to operate a lawn mower with skill and ease.
As my friends spent the Labor Day holiday rekindling the joy of hot summer days with a water hose or at some more affluent classmate’s pool or, even more likely, letting the hours go by while playing Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis to escape the heat, I had other plans. I’d committed myself fully to my first venture, and a nearby woman’s large yard needed mowing. I would end up spending well over 20 hours across that Saturday, Sunday and Monday cutting her lawn, raking the leaves and bagging them as she’d requested. I’d recently learned that by quoting a firm price to a customer of “$15” I’d get paid exactly $15, but if I added just a few extra words and said “it’ll probably be around $15” I’d more likely get paid closer to $20.
Given my assumption that the older woman firmly understood the challenge of her large, leave-filled yard - not to mention my missing out on Labor Day fun with friends - I anticipated something closer to $40 for the job. Twenty-something odd hours and three long, hot days later, and she handed me a measly $7. Yes, you read that right.
I went home and my mom immediately saw the tears in my eyes and asked me what was wrong. I told her about all the work I’d put in over the weekend (she was busy herself working two jobs as she did for most of my childhood) and about the $7.
Now I know I said I’d had a negotiation of my own back in ‘95, but that was a lie. The negotiation was really my mother’s. After lamenting the $7 compensation, tears running down my cheeks, she grabbed me by the wrist and walked with me back up to the woman’s home. She knocked on the door with the kind of ferocity and intent I’d rarely seen from her about anything; my mom is pretty mild mannered unless she’s on a dance floor. The woman answered the door and my mom said something along these lines.
“My son was over here all weekend working on your yard while he could’ve been playing and you only paid him $7?! No. You’re gonna pay my baby.”
The woman responded confused, unsure of what she’d done wrong. (It’s probably a good time to point out that this was an older white woman, likely in her late 60s or 70s and perhaps she thought what kids got paid for cutting grass back in the ‘50s still applied). Finally sensing the moment after looking at my mother’s fixed and stern look, she went back into the house and returned with her wallet in hand asking my mother how much she owed. My mother didn’t answer. She simply grabbed the wallet, took out $30 dollars and said “that’s enough.” I went home feeling both ashamed of my mistake in having not negotiated the exact price up front and feeling incredibly proud to have such a commanding and loving mom.
I’m reminded of this experience after reading about the negotiations between the City of Austin and the Austin EMS union in which the City’s “slap in the face” counter offer of a $0.14 per hour raise (the City later gave a statement to CBS Austin saying it was really a $0.39 cents raise) is a sign of a City once again not upholding its values in practice when given the opportunity, which is something we’ve seen from our City Manager’s office, our police department and, yes, members of our City Council.
Listen, I’m not at the negotiating table. I don’t know the fine details of the City’s strategy with such a shameful counteroffer, but I do know how hardworking these essential and overworked paramedics and emergency workers are, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic and the institutional failures of the winter storm and ensuing electrical grid failure. EMS starts at under $46K per year, firefighters closer to $54K per year and police officers at close to $63K per year, yet the pandemic has shown precisely how essential EMS is with everything from responses to homelessness calls to COVID calls that other departments are unwilling to respond to with the same volume or skill. With a nursing shortage and rising salaries that are extracting more and more EMS professionals from ambulances and putting more into hospitals, I know that an EMS department already facing a staffing shortage needs steadfast support from our City to shore up their ranks amidst more than 100 job openings and recruit new entrants to their upcoming training cohorts.
I also know that these are adults, professional adults, who are paid far less than their counterparts within the Austin Fire Department and Austin Police Department despite carrying an undoubted and essential burden for the City’s public safety strategy, which is still in need of reimagining and building of more community trust.
My mom isn’t going to pull the money out of the City of Austin’s wallet to make things right nor can I insert myself into the negotiating discussions, but make no mistake: grossly underpaying hardworking people should not be tolerated for essential EMS workers in Austin anymore than it should’ve been for me as a pre-teen.
As a City Council member I know I could only do so much to direct the City Manager’s office and delegation of the negotiation tactics with unions, but I can assure you’d I would not let one of the City’s most important departments, leading one of our most essential functions of public safety, see the day where their efforts, their hard work, their commitment, and their very professions were treated with the kind of disrespect this $0.14 (or is it $0.39?) raise signals, particularly after the last two years we’ve all experienced. Negotiating tactics should not be confused with the kind of disrespect that could lead such an important body of workers to feel unwanted.
The last negotiations between the EMS and City resulted in the City providing most of the EMS union’s requested pay spike of a 2% raise per year back in 2018, so I hold out hope that a similar compromise is possible here, but much of the damage has been done from a negotiating standpoint.
I may have to call my mom for backup if the City doesn’t get its act together.