State firefighters got an early Christmas present with the news that their union reached a tentative agreement with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, for a four-year contract offering raises in a range of 11 to 18 percent.
The announcement follows a campaign the union launched during last summer’s fire season that drew attention to a growing gap between the salaries its members earn and the wages paid by local governments for comparable work. A 2014 survey showed they earn 33 percent less in total compensation than their counterparts in other California fire departments.
“We still have a lot of issues to address. Our salaries will still be behind our local government counterparts, but it puts us on a path with the administration to start fixing the problem,” said Cal Fire Local 2881 Rank and File Director Tim Edwards.
The union, which represents about 6,000 firefighters, had six months remaining on its current contract. The union exercised an option to open the contract earlier this year, and the new agreement would replace the expiring one if members approve it.
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Cal Fire Local 2881 President Mike Lopez said the union’s top priority was addressing salary compaction, a term that refers to shrinking gaps between salaries for entry-level firefighters and more experienced ones.
Our salaries will still be behind our local government counterparts, but it puts us on a path with the administration to start to fixing the problem.
Cal Fire Local 2881 Rank and File Director Tim Edwards
Beginning firefighters earned $10 an hour this year. Their salaries are climbing quickly with the state’s mandate to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. That led firefighters at higher pay scales to advocate for raises.
“Our ranks of entry-level firefighter salaries pushed up from the bottom and they were overlapping the ranks above them,” Lopez said. The new contract, he said, would “lessen the impact” of that overlap.
Wages for entry-level firefighters would increase by about 11 percent over four years. By contrast, more experienced captains would see an 18 percent pay hike through 2021. More details are expected to be released in coming days.
The tentative contract has other significant changes that could increase pay for more experienced firefighters. Battalion chiefs, for instance, stand to earn more money in extended duty pay because of a change in how their standard shifts are calculated. They’ll move to a 56-hour shift instead of 72 hours, lowering their threshold for extended duty pay.
Salary increases would be offset somewhat by new fees state employees are paying for health benefits they’ll use in retirement. Firefighters would see 1.5 percent of their paychecks go to retirement health benefits beginning July 1. That rate would climb to 4.4 percent on July 1, 2019.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration had 15 expired or open labor contracts last summer. Now, only one of the state’s 21 bargaining units – the Union of American Physicians and Dentists – does not have a contract or a tentative agreement for a new one.
Suzanne Wilson, UAPD’s spokeswoman, said the union could not reach an agreement with the state at bargaining sessions last week. It plans to return to negotiations after the holidays.