Some of California's rank-and-file firefighters earn so much money in overtime that the state has revived pay bonuses worth thousands of dollars to lure them into management.
The problem at the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has grown over the last decade, as the state negotiated firefighter contracts that boosted overtime pay without consistently raising supervisors' wages.
Along with the department's graying ranks and early-retirement incentives, the developments have depleted Cal Fire's leadership ranks.
Persuading line firefighters to take those management positions and give up the overtime money has proved difficult.
"Basically, when you're an assistant chief, you make less money, have more responsibility and work longer hours," said Dale Hutchinson, who as southern region chief hires Cal Fire managers for half the state. "It's been a standing issue for years."
The state is again upping pay for some managers as a result.
Most of new "recruitment and retention differential" money will go to 34 assistant chiefs in the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It adds $1,851 per month, about $22,000 per year, to their base pay.
The money, which counts toward their pension, will show up on their Feb. 1 paychecks.
Assistant chiefs are key entry-level managers who handle everything from employee grievances to unit budgets to running command centers in major emergencies. As exempt employees, they don't receive overtime.
In 2010, assistant chiefs earned median pay of $117,617, augmented by another $10,877 in recruiting and retention incentives that ended for new hires a few years ago.
Battalion chiefs, the pool of top-tier firefighters who normally would be promoted to assistant chief, earned a median $67,853, with overtime pay adding another $49,000.
The battalion chiefs earn that much in overtime because they are covered by a union contract that calls for them to work in 72-hour shifts. The last 19 hours of that stretch, called "planned overtime," is paid at time-and-a-half.
They also receive "extended duty" for work beyond their 72-hour shifts that is paid at the higher rate.
Battalion chiefs were exempt supervisors until a 2001 labor agreement signed by Democrat Gov. Gray Davis moved them to rank-and-file status.
That brought them under the union overtime rules, which were sweetened under that same 2001 agreement: Planned overtime, previously paid at half the regular pay rate, was raised incrementally over several years to the current time-and-a-half.
Predictably, the pool of applicants for assistant chief dried up.
"Back in the old days of strong unionism, middle managers in firms like (General Motors) tended to expect that when the production workers got union-negotiated increases, they would eventually see similar pay adjustments," said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a professor emeritus and labor expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. "If rank-and-file workers get pay increases, it tends to spread upwards."
At Cal Fire it meant that the most experienced, best-paid battalion chiefs would take a pay cut to be promoted, Hutchinson said, "so very, very few candidates were interested."
The rising number of Cal Fire retirees has magnified the department's leadership shortage. Today, four in 10 assistant chiefs are eligible for retirement. About three-quarters of the supervisors above them are old enough to draw a pension.
In 2003, the state created an earlier retirement incentive agreeing to lower from 55 to 50 the age at which firefighters with enough service time could draw a pension.
Cal Fire managers and supervisors received the same benefit.
"If you offer full retirement at a younger age, people are going to retire younger," Mitchell said. "It's logical."
The union's 2010 contract moved the retirement age for new firefighter hires back to 55.
The Cal Fire management shortage has been so acute that the department has thrust extra work on those who remain. In the San Luis Obispo region, for example, "we were down at one point to just one unit chief and they were budgeted for one deputy chief and five assistant chiefs," Hutchinson said.
Faced with a similar problem six years ago, GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed off on Cal Fire management pay differentials.
But payments included a sunset provision. Anyone taking an assistant chief job or others in the same management group after June 30, 2009, didn't get the extra money.
Since then, the department has annually earmarked $4.6 million to cover the management differentials. This year the differentials apply to 175 management positions, many of them still vacant. Cal Fire's overall budget this year is $842.2 million.
"It's a common scenario in public safety, because of the almost-certain overtime for rank-and-file folks in those jobs," said Timothy Yeung, a Sacramento-based labor attorney who negotiates labor contracts. "Cities and counties try to maintain at least a 10 percent management differential."
With the sunset of the management differentials, the number of Cal Fire assistant chiefs and other managers fell. In January of last year, one in four assistant chief jobs was vacant. Applications had dwindled to virtually zero, Hutchinson said.
Last month Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott and his boss, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, met with the state's human resources chief Ron Yank, Finance Director Ana Motosantos and other state officials to argue for restarting the differentials.
Yank, a retired labor lawyer who once counted the firefighters' union among his clients, was convinced.
"Obviously there are certain image issues" to paying a small group of six-figure workers even more money, Yank said, but the shortage of Cal Fire leadership was affecting the department's mission to protect property and life. "This is literally a life-and-death matter."
The meeting ended with an agreement to restart the Cal Fire differentials Jan. 1.
Since then, said Hutchinson, the Cal Fire region chief, "We've had significant interest to fill those (assistant chief) positions."