California state firefighters will receive substantial raises of up to 13.8 percent this year, according to newly released details from a proposed contract that their union negotiated just before Christmas.
The big pay raises have two objectives: Slowing turnover among mid-career firefighters and reducing wage compaction, a term that refers to shrinking gaps between salaries for entry-level firefighters and more experienced ones.
Take-home pay for beginning firefighters has climbed steadily because of the state’s adoption of a higher minimum wage, while pay for their supervisors has stagnated.
“Two years ago our (entry-level firefighters) were making $8 an hour,” Cal Fire Local 2881 President Mike Lopez said. They’ll make $10.50 an hour this year.
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“We had to stay in step with the separation of classifications because you cannot have your subordinates making more money than you,” he said.
The proposal for the nearly 5,900 firefighters represented by the union does not have a standard wage increase for all its members.
Instead, the four-year deal sets distinct wage increases for nine separate job classifications. The raises are front-loaded, with most firefighters due to receive two wage increases in 2017.
Battalion chiefs, high-level supervisors who earn about $15,800 a month in total compensation, will receive an 8.5 percent wage increase over four years.
They’ll also benefit from a new method of calculating extended duty pay, which should guarantee them more hours at overtime wages.
The highest raises will go to employees in the firefighter II paramedic job classification. They’d receive a 13.8 percent wage increase this year alone and a total base salary increase of 22.3 percent by July 1, 2020. On average, they received $11,051 a month in total compensation in 2014, a figure that includes pension contributions and health benefits.
In recent years, Cal Fire has seen a vacancy rate as high as 40 percent among in its firefighter II classification. Today, it has 77 vacancies among its authorized staff of 331 firefighter II employees, a vacancy rate of 23 percent.
A 2014 survey showed that state firefighters earned 33 percent less in total compensation than their counterparts in local fire departments.
State firefighters are paid with a complicated formula that mixes fairly low standard wages with higher pay for extended duty. Their base wages are 89 percent below what their counterparts in local governments earn, according to the 2014 survey.
The new contract won’t close the gap, but it could make a difference in retention, Lopez said.
“We have a lot of paramedics that we train very well and then they leave to work for other departments for a third more money and a third less work. Hopefully this will slow that down,” he said.
The state Human Resources Department estimates that the increased compensation will cost the state $60 million in the 2017-18 budget.
Overall, the contract changes will cost $475.6 million through 2020.
From Jan. 1, 2017 to July 1, 2020, base wages for the following job classifications will increase by these margins:
▪ 22.3 percent for firefighter II paramedic,
▪ 17.5 percent for firefighter II,
▪ 20.75 percent for fire apparatus engineer and fire apparatus engineer paramedic,
▪ 18.5 percent for fire captain paramedic,
▪ 18 percent for fire captain and heavy fire equipment operator,
▪ 12.75 percent for forestry fire pilot, and
▪ 8.5 percent for battalion chief.