Austin-Travis County medics, city employees struggle to make ends meet

FOX 7 Austin continues to look at the struggles of Austin-Travis County medics and other city employees to make ends meet.

In investigating what constitutes a "living wage" here in Austin, FOX 7 has learned a push is under way to raise the city’s official living wage from $15 to $22 an hour. That would have a huge impact on city workers.

But some say that should have already happened given the affordability crisis we’re in from inflation to gas, to soaring rents and home prices.

Earlier this week, we met Patrick Swift, who says being an Austin-Travis County medic is the most rewarding job he’s had.

"When you walk in and it's chaos and when you leave, it's calm. Oh, that is my favorite thing in the world," said Swift.

Financially, it’s less than rewarding, he says, with his hourly wage just under $21. That means living in Taylor with his wife and kids, and being eligible for WIC.

"When I hear that a City of Austin employee who is being paid by the city of Austin is eligible for food stamps. That certainly makes me pause and wonder, what are we not doing right now?" said District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes.

"The people that literally jump in to save our lives every day have to be a top priority," said District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison.

Harper-Madison and Fuentes point out the current EMS contract negotiations isn’t a process that directly involves them, but City Council does have the final say on that deal.

"I really appreciate EMS advocating for themselves and the union advocating for its members. That's what it's designed to do," said Harper-Madison.

"Once there is a mutually agreed upon contract, that contract proposal will come before Council," said Fuentes. "What I hope to see in this contract is ensuring that we are paying competitive wages for EMS employees, that we value them."

But some council members, like Fuentes and Mayor Steve Adler, have been pushing hard for progressive economic policies like guaranteed basic income. 

Several members recently advocated for more incentives for lifeguards. Others, like Harper-Madison, have been outspoken in their support for paid family leave for city workers. This summer, Council will need to find money in the budget for all of these.

We asked if these programs have come at the expense of more action on actual wages.

"I wouldn't say so. I think they're of equal importance. We recognize the difficulty of jobs, the first responder jobs, EMS, APD, AFD," said Harper-Madison. "And I recognize how beneficial it is to families to be able to have that time to spend with family."

"We should be doubling down in how we pay employees here in Austin, and we should be doubling down on how we tackle housing here in Austin," said Fuentes.

A big piece of that is the city’s so-called "living" wage, which serves as a baseline for what most city workers make.

A living wage is defined as "a wage that is high enough to maintain a normal standard of living" by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Right now in Austin, that living wage number sits at $15 an hour.

"I think anyone with a calculator and 30 seconds can tell you that $15 an hour," said Swift. "That's not a living wage. That's a subsistence wage. That's desperation wages."

A City Council committee is currently considering a proposal to raise it to $22 an hour.

"That number has got to be above what it takes to live in the city of Austin," said Rebecca Bernhard, chair of the Austin Public Safety Commission.

According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a living wage in the Austin-Round Rock metro for an adult raising one child is $34.22. For two working adults raising two kids, it’s $23.87.

Still, a $22 living wage could make a big difference for a lot of city workers. Here is a look at the current starting pay for several city positions:

  • Paramedic: $19.56
  • Animal Protection Officer: $16.47
  • Community Health Worker: $17.54
  • Lifeguard: $15.00
  • Park Ranger: 16.47
  • Parking Meter Technician: $17.54
  • Security Guard: $15.48

"For all City of Austin employees, we have to have the conversation of raising the wage," said Fuentes. "I’m a big supporter of $22 per hour, and certainly we’ll be having those continued conversations."

Both Fuentes and Harper-Madison insist that alongside wages, tackling the housing crisis has to be a huge part of the overall affordability picture.

"Some of the things that we can do as a municipality to take some of that pressure off from an affordability perspective is more housing and more transit options. Otherwise, you know, we're going to be a city that's made for millionaires, and all our police officers, EMS workers, firefighters, teachers, our musicians, artists—everybody’s going to be living in the suburbs," said Harper-Madison.

It’s unclear at this point when the full City Council would vote on increasing the living wage. But as EMS contract negotiations go into overtime, the union is hoping that happens sooner rather than later.