AUSTIN (KXAN) — As icy winter weather impacts Central Texas, the city of Austin says it’s still struggling to fill staff positions in several departments.
They say while they’ve made a lot of progress hiring after the pandemic, their vacancy rates are still higher than normal, and they’re launching their largest hiring campaign in history.
So, we asked: What impacts might their staffing shortage have on the city’s response to this frigid weather?
Austin-Travis County EMS
ATCEMS spokesperson Captain Darren Noak said the gap means more overtime for staff.
“Obviously staffing shortage in any operation causes some overtime for folks involved,” said Noak. “But when you do throw in an event like this, a weather event like this, additional overtime… will be incurred.”
He explained that’s because they’re proactively bringing in additional shifts and crews into prepositioned areas.
“So they can safely relieve the crews that are on duty and then they can alternate back and forth without having that travel, which would impact their safety as well as others,” Noak said.
The city said in in September, they increased starting pay for EMTs and paramedics to help fill the staffing gap.
The city said ATCEMS also slashed the minimum entry level qualifications for positions where cadets can go from the academy to the field. They also increased cadet academies from 2-3 per year to 4 per year, which the city said has helped cut at least 60 vacancies since October 2022.
The city said ATCEMS is expected to hire 70-80 more people by the end of this year.
The city said Austin Energy has reduced its vacancy rate from 14.5% at the end of December 2021 to 12.8% currently.
Austin Energy spokesperson Matt Mitchell said that doesn’t affect their winter storm preparedness or response, though.
“We have crews that are prepared and on standby. We have rosters created for… the backups that may need backup,” he said.
The city said the department was able to fill 306 open spots in fiscal year 2022, which is more than they were able to in 2021.
They said so far for fiscal year 2023, Austin Energy has filled 108 positions.
Austin Water said their incident management team is on standby in case they need to be activated. They’ve also pegged more operations support staff to be on-call in case of an emergency and notified their on-call contractors to be available to support operations staff as needed.
To prepare for this winter storm, the utility said it’s monitoring social media more, along with portal messages and customer calls through 311.
They’re also working with key accounts to make sure they can send emergency messages to multifamily tenants, they said.
An Austin Water spokesperson said the agency “is operating normally and has no unmet staff requirements to support the expected freezing weather.”
She said if the weather impacts their operations in the next few days, “the identified additional operations on-call support staff would be utilized as well as the on-call contractors to support AW operations.”
The city said in fiscal year 2022, Austin Water filled 300 open positions and is focusing on hiring more operational positions this fiscal year.
“AW offers a generous referral bonus and new hire incentives and is also partnering with professional organizations in the industry to develop new talent resources, including creation of a training module to be used in local high schools to teach students about water operations,” the city said in a press release on Monday.
They added that the utility is also surveying new hires and current employees to figure out how to prevent staff from leaving.
Austin Public Library
Spokesperson Baylor Johnson said all APL locations are designated as warming centers during normal operating hours.
He said no APL facilities are being used as overnight shelters during this current cold weather event but if that happens when the library is not usually open, they will issue a call for APL staff to volunteer to be on standby to staff warming center locations off-hours.
“Depending on what their position makes them eligible for, and what the volunteering staff member worked out with their supervisor, they may receive either overtime pay, administrative leave time that they can use in the future, or simply flex their schedule within the current pay period and shift their hours,” he said.
He added that if the city closes all offices for a weather emergency, anyone required to work during that closure receives administrative leave time.
Johnson said that list of staff to call on to volunteer is shorter than normal, since the department is at about a 12% vacancy rate.
The city said that’s a decrease from where it was over the summer, at 18.7% in July.
“APL has held two large job fairs to hire temporary employees and establish a recruitment bench for regular-status jobs,” the city said.
Watershed Protection Department
The City of Austin said the Watershed Protection has been able to cut its vacancy rate from almost 20% in early fiscal year 2022 to 13.1% now.
They credit part of that to updating their telework policy to allow up to 80% remote working, and offering cell phones instead of stipends to give employees more digital access.
Ramesh Swaminathan, assistant director of the watershed protection department, said his department would take the lead on any response to flooding or water quality but they are on standby to help support other agencies during this winter weather.
“We are always prepared to deal with emergencies and… we have crews on standby and things of that nature,” he said.
He said for example, his crews might help the public works department in responding to icy streets.
“And then of course, what happens is that after the emergency like what happened last time, if we need to distribute water or do any of those things, we will be happy to assist them in as required,” he said.
Swaminathan said in that way, their staffing gap does not affect winter weather emergency operations right now.