San Jose 911 dispatchers call for higher pay, increased staffing
Emergency dispatcher Heather Hartter-Kava stands outside City Hall on North Fifth Street Tuesday to raise awareness about wage increases for emergency dispatchers. Photo by Stephanie Lam.

With their city contract about to expire, emergency dispatchers are calling for increases in pay and staffing levels to handle local 911 calls.

“We do our job because we want to help citizens in San Jose, but a lot of us aren’t able to live in the city that we serve in,” said Scarlet Darmousseh, a San Jose Fire Communications dispatcher.

Darmousseh belongs to the Municipal Employees’ Federation (MEF) 101, a local union that represents city workers such as dispatchers, office specialists and librarians.

The union is asking the San Jose City Council to approve a wage increase of 3.5% for dispatchers and other city workers in their next contract. The current contract ends Wednesday.

More than 100 members from MEF and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 rallied in front of City Hall Tuesday to call for higher wages in their next contract.

The average annual salary for full-time emergency dispatchers in San Jose ranges from about $84,000 to $135,000.

More than 100 city workers and community members gather in front of City Hall to support higher wages for union workers such as emergency dispatchers. Photo by Stephanie Lam.

Heather Hartter-Kava, a San Jose fire dispatcher, said when the pandemic shut everything down last year, emergency dispatchers continued to work without hazard pay.

“The city should compensate us,” she told San José Spotlight.

In a statement to San José Spotlight, city spokesperson Carolina Camarena said the council has been in contract negotiations with MEF since March and remains hopeful that an agreement will be reached before the end of the contract.

“The city recognizes the recruitment and retention concerns of our dispatchers,” Camarena said. “Over the last several years, the city has made efforts to improve the recruitment and retention of these employees, including special wage increases, a hiring referral program and providing additional training pay. The city’s proposals in these negotiations have included a commitment to continuing to discuss efforts to recruit and retain our dispatchers.”

Dispatcher Kristin Earhart said union members showed up to work during the pandemic without knowing what kind of risk they exposed their families to.

“We continued to talk to people who were dying and couldn’t breathe, gasping for air, call after call with more hours than we’ve ever worked before,” Earhart told San José Spotlight.

911 dispatcher Kristin Earhart and her daughter hold up signs during the rally. Photo by Stephanie Lam.

In addition to higher wages, Darmousseh said the city’s dispatchers need more workers to keep up with demand.

“We’re really overworked because we’re covering all this time that we don’t have the staffing for,” Darmousseh said.

San Jose Fire Communications has 47 authorized personnel serving the city’s population of more than one million residents. Police Communications has 133 workers, according to the city’s website.

When callers dial 911, dispatchers from the San Jose Police Department process the call and forward information to police or other agencies. Calls regarding fire or medical emergencies are transferred to dispatchers in the fire department who then dispatch fire personnel.

Fire communications relies on overtime to keep up with calls, and the amount of overtime tripled in the last decade, according to a 2019 audit of the city’s 911 calls. During the 2017-18 year, each dispatcher handled more than 3,000 calls.

The state requires all 911 calls to be answered within 15 seconds. According to the audit, in 2018-19 fire communications call answering times averaged 11.9 seconds and police communications averaged 5.8 seconds.

Jill, a city employee who declined to give her last name, holds up a homemade sign and a cardboard straw to show her frustration toward the City Council. Photo by Stephanie Lam.

Darmousseh said that a shortage of dispatchers can also result in longer response times for 911 calls.

“Fire and medical calls often go unanswered for minutes at a time because of low staffing,” she said.

Other city departments are dealing with low staffing and pay as well, said Jill, a transportation worker who did not provide her last name.

“We’re doing more jobs and all we’re asking is to be treated with respect,” she told San José Spotlight. “We have so many vacancies we can’t even post them all at one time online.”

Contact Stephanie Lam at [email protected] or follow @StephCLam on Twitter.

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