Austin medics fight for livable wage as cost of living across city continues to skyrocket

It’s getting tougher and tougher to afford to live in Austin with the city’s first responders even struggling to make ends meet. 

The problem is being compounded by the fact that many workers are not making what they consider a "living wage", chief among them are Austin’s medics.

The current starting hourly wage for medics stands at $19.56, as EMS contract talks continued Tuesday. The city gave its latest offer of $22.00 Tuesday afternoon, up a little over $2 an hour from its original offer. 

But the union says their demand Tuesday, $24.70, is as low as they can go.

"For me, honestly, it's being able to genuinely help," said Austin-Travis County paramedic Patrick Swift.

Following in the footsteps of his father, who was a medic in New York City, Swift says the level of risk and trauma he and his Austin-Travis County EMS brothers and sisters have been exposed to in the last two years has gone through the roof, from COVID to the winter storms to an increase in crime and mental illness spilling out into the streets.

"A fire truck has four men on the engine and they have axes and crowbars," said Swift. "The police officers have Tasers and guns and pepper spray. And with us, it's two bulletproof vests and situational awareness."

But Swift’s two years of experience in Austin puts his hourly wage at just under $21, a full $9 less than what sworn Austin police officers start at.

"We're paid less than a day manager at Buc-ee's. We make less money than the people who drive the CapMetro buses. And that's not to take away from what any of those people do for a living. But none of them have had to hand the dead infant back to their mom and say, ‘I'm so sorry. I couldn't do anymore.’"

Swift says it’s not just insulting, it’s unlivable. He lives in Taylor with his wife, who works as a social worker, and his four kids because they can’t afford to live in Austin.

"I just can't imagine how that seems equitable to anyone," said Swift.

The worst moment for him?

"When I had my son in December, we qualified for WIC, and we took it," said Swift. "And it just like it was like someone punched me in the stomach," Swift added, "I go to work every day. I'm not injured. I'm putting in my time. How come I can't feed my kids?"

"This is an actual crisis, and I really feel like the city manager is treating this like a game," said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, at the Austin Public Safety Commission meeting last Monday night.

Xie says Swift is far from alone with 26% of her medics eligible for Section 8 housing.

"The City of Austin's wage offer to us is actually a pay cut given inflation and the cost of living in Austin," said Xie.

The city points out its latest offer of $22 an hour amounts to a more than 10% raise for medics starting out. But Xie says it doesn’t cut it, given what she calls a dire staffing situation.

"We're 25% short. That's more than any other city department. That's two times how short the police officers are. And so our department will implode," said Xie.

Medics are leaving for other fields, Xie says, because they’re sick of scraping by.

"The last few years we really have had to help out more medics than ever through our relief fund, medics needing assistance with rent, needing assistance with just paying certain bills," said Xie.  

"A living wage in Austin is no longer $15, it’s no longer $19," said Public Safety Commission Chair Rebecca Bernhardt at last week’s meeting.

But the City of Austin currently lists the living wage at $15, a number established in 2018. Bernhardt says that’s ridiculous.

"The city of Austin seems to be negotiating from a place of using old numbers," said Bernhardt. "Not taking into account the change in the cost of housing or the overall change in the cost of living."

For Patrick Swift, that boils down to not being able to do things for his kids, like piano lessons, cheerleading or taking them out for their birthday.

"If it gets much worse, you know, I'm going to have to I'm already starting to consider other options," said Swift. "I find it harder and harder to look at my wife in the face and say, ‘No, it matters too much to me to serve the city of Austin to keep living like this.’"

A spokesperson for the City of Austin issued a statement late Tuesday following the negotiations:  

"Today’s offer to the EMS union would increase starting pay for EMTs and paramedics by more than 10%. In addition, all current employees would receive a pay raise ranging from 2% to 11.2%, depending on position and tenure. By providing almost $20 million in additional pay over four years we are responding to the very real financial pressures facing many of our workers while accounting for the fiscal responsibility we owe to our taxpayers. The union’s current proposal is far greater than the City’s current offer during this time of ever-increasing fiscal constraints."

This is Part 1 of a two-part FOX 7 Investigates series. Wednesday on FOX 7 Austin News at 9 and 10, FOX 7 Austin looks into the push to raise the living wage threshold for all city workers. We’ll speak with City Council members about what more needs to be done, and dig into what the experts say about what a true living wage is in Austin.