By Jo Clifton
Members of the city’s living wage work group urged City Council Tuesday to raise the city’s living wage to $22 an hour for the upcoming fiscal year. They said the wage should apply to all regular and temporary city employees except employees of the summer youth program, regardless of position or number of hours worked.
Council members Vanessa Fuentes, Ann Kitchen, Chito Vela, Kathie Tovo and Pio Renteria have already signed on to a resolution on the June 16 agenda calling on the city manager to adopt a living wage of $22/hour in next year’s budget.
The current living wage is $15/hour and that has not changed since 2018. City management raised employees’ wages to $15 as a result of a recommendation from the living wage working group in 2015.
The Human Resources Department convened the working group again this year, asking for its recommendations on a living wage. According to staff’s calculations, providing a $22 minimum wage would cost the city between $18.2 million and $22.8 million, not including wages for police.
Carol Guthrie, business manager for AFSCME Local 1624, told Council during its work session that it’s time to raise wages so the city can meet the demands of the public and its own employees. With inflation, gas prices and rising housing costs, Austin city employees are suffering and underpaid, she said.
While the city raised its minimum wage to $15 in 2018, it failed to keep raising that amount, which should have become $16.83 the following year.
According to documentation provided by the city, as of the end of April, the city had more than 2,474 vacancies, compared to about 1,559 on May 1, 2019. The vacancies include 78 at Austin Resource Recovery, 266 at Austin Energy, 96 in Public Works, 237 at Aviation, 133 at Parks and Recreation, 357 in the Police Department, 198 at Emergency Medical Services, and 126 firefighters.
City employees are suffering, Guthrie said, with some working so much overtime that they have become injured and ended up on the disability list.
City leaders did not foresee the pandemic, nor did they foresee the freeze. “And those additional stressors have played a big role in where we are at today. But something’s got to give. We need more workers. We cannot hire workers. Those who work here – they’re done, they’re spent. They need your help. We’ve got to be competitive. We have got to raise the wage for these workers.” The private sector is now hiring at $20 an hour, Guthrie said, and the city is not able to compete.
Rachel Melendes of UNITE HERE, the union representing some airport employees, said working at the airport is “too stressful. They are overwhelmed,” she said, noting that many airport workers arrive at 3:30 a.m. and leave at noon. “And despite their hard work they are not able to support their families on the city’s wages.”
Fabiola Barreto of Workers Defense said her group has been observing that “the folks constructing the city are not reaping any of the benefits. They’re moving to Buda and Kyle,” because they can’t afford to live in Austin.
Complicating matters, every Council member is aware of the fact that, as a result of state law, they can’t raise taxes more than 3.5 percent without the permission of voters.
Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison voiced her support of the wage proposal. She said she is telling people in her district that they should be prepared to move out of Austin as prices rise higher. That would be better than waiting until they have missed rent payments, she said.
Council Member Alison Alter told her colleagues she is committed to a wage increase, but could not commit to a specific number. She said, “Keeping our workforce competitive is the highest priority.”
Kitchen said it was her goal to reach $22 as recommended by the working group. She said it was particularly important that the public understand the trade-offs city management might have to make in order to pay the amount employees need. She told City Manager Spencer Cronk, “Get us to $22. If you can’t get us to $22 … tell us why.”
Guthrie told the Austin Monitor after the meeting that she and other members of the working group would be at the Council meeting next week to push for adoption of the $22/hour resolution. However, she said she was disturbed that the working group put in so much effort seven years ago to tell the city to raise wages, but there was no action on their recommendations after the city raised the living wage to $15.
Guthrie said she and others would be ready to fight for their wage proposal. In addition to AFSCME, other members of the group include representatives of Central Texas Interfaith, Workers Defense Project, Laborers’ International Union 1095, IBEW Local 520, the Austin chapter of General Contractors, Plumbers Local 286, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Austin LGBT Chamber, UNITE HERE, Local Progress, Texas Antipoverty Project and the Equal Justice Center.
Emmy Amash has always been the friend that people would go to with questions about sex, birth control and women’s health issues. It’s what called her to work as a birth doula and go to nursing school.
But during rotations around Austin, she’s noticed a shift in the trust between patients and healthcare providers, and it’s been happening under Texas’ Senate Bill 8, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
“What I've seen working in the emergency room with women who are coming in experiencing complications after or during a miscarriage is a lot of what feels to me like mistrust and hesitancy to be sharing complete histories of what's going on,” Amash said.
Over the last 10 months, SB 8 has had a chilling effect on healthcare workers and patients that’s endangering people’s lives, says a new study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project in the New England Journal of Medicine. It also offers a glimpse at how the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade—which is expected to outlaw or restrict abortion in almost half of the states—will make the risks to patients more common.
The study shared findings based on interviews with Texas clinicians and 20 people who had medically complex pregnancies and sought care under SB 8. The law—which bans abortion before many even know that they are pregnant—is aimed at those providing abortion care. But researchers say that, to the detriment of patients, it has an effect on other health care workers.
For example, a woman who took part in the study reported receiving a fetal diagnosis of trisomy 18, a rare condition lacking a cure that causes most babies to die before they are born. But the woman’s physician didn’t inform her about termination options.
“When you already have received news like that and can barely function, the thought of then having to do your own investigating to determine where to get this medical care and to arrange going out of state feels additionally overwhelming,” the woman said.
On the health provider side, Amash understands the frustration and secrecy of patients, citing Lizelle Herrera’s case as an example of the kind of situation patients may worry about running into.
Herrera, a 26-year-old in the Rio Grande Valley, was arrested on a murder charge in April for a self-induced abortion. She was held in jail for three days on a $500,000 bond until a local district attorney dropped the case.
🚨Breaking News!!!🚨 Charges are being dismissed for Lizelle Herrera!!! #Justice4Lizellepic.twitter.com/yG15cw74Oi
— Frontera Fund (@LaFronteraFund) April 10, 2022
But there could be more instances like Herrera’s, and Amash talked about what it’s been like to continue working amid added restrictions on abortion rights. It’ll only continue given that Texas and a dozen other states have a trigger law making abortion illegal after the repeal of Roe v. Wade. In Texas; it’ll go into effect within 30 days.
“I feel like I've been holding my breath,” Amash said. She went on to describe “feeling powerless to this larger system that's making these choices that's so far removed from the actual lives of individuals.”
But local officials are taking action in light of the high court's decision. Austin City Council will hold a special meeting the week of July 18 on a resolution aimed at decriminalizing abortion. Submitted by council member Jose "Chito" Vela, it would direct the police department to make criminal enforcement, arrest and investigation of abortions its lowest priority. But for Central Texans, it may only allow for a patchwork system in which only abortions within the city escape criminalization.
“That's nice, and also, it's just not enough,” Amash said. “Not enough for how big Texas is for us to have one little area. There's a lot of people here that need care and aren't going to have access to it.”
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This month has been Austin's hottest June on record after 21 days of triple-degree heat, according to the National Weather Service.
Despite a weather forecast that predicted otherwise, Austin beat the odds and logged its 12th straight day of 100+ degree high temperatures Monday. On the same day, the city also broke its 2008 record with the most triple-digit temperatures ever recorded during the month.
Austin has now hit 100 degrees 21 times this month and 12 days in a row, a new June record.
— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWSSanAntonio) June 27, 2022
The city has now broke heat records for two months in a row after recording its hottest May ever last month.
But at least some of Austin's hot and dry start to summer may be alleviated soon as a so-called cold front heads into town Monday night. Temperatures are expected to remain below the mid-90s for the rest of the week, and Tuesday could break the nearly two-week streak of 100-degree highs.
With the cold front comes much-needed rain, which is expected to scatter across Central Texas skies Monday night. Lightning and gusts of wind up to 60 mph could hit the area, especially along the I-35 corridor near San Marcos, where a Severe Thunderstorm Warning has been issued.
Storms will continue to develop along an east to west line through sunset. The Hill Country, I-35 Corridor, and Coastal Plains will be most affected. The main dangers are lightning and gusts winds to 60 mph. pic.twitter.com/ocKg9cYDSd
— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWSSanAntonio) June 27, 2022
Scattered storms are expected to remain Tuesday with possibly bouts of gusty winds and small hail, and some storms could continue in the area east of I-35 through Thursday. Austin has seen 2.8 fewer inches of rainfall than the average this month and is only expected to see about a quarter inch of rainfall this week.
Scattered showers and thunderstorms are expected to persist through about 9-10 pm this evening before weakening. Expect a similar setup on Tuesday, but chances look better for the Rio Grande Plains and Winter Garden region. Gusty winds and small hail are possibly. #txwxpic.twitter.com/X4tmSTLBQu
— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWSSanAntonio) June 27, 2022
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