The State Worker

The State Worker: State firefighters battle for better pay

While state firefighters have battled the epic King fire west of Lake Tahoe, their union has been struggling with a political question: What can they expect financially in the future from Gov. Jerry Brown?

California Department of Forestry Firefighters is in the midst of voting on an agreement with Brown to amend the union’s current contract. The deal gives most members a 4 percent raise Jan. 1. Meanwhile, some of the lowest-paid firefighters are receiving a 12.5 percent salary hike.

The smaller increase is in line with Brown’s policy that no union would get an across-the-board pay raise larger than the one he negotiated last year with the mammoth SEIU Local 1000. The larger percentage raise was prompted by – get this – the latest increase in California’s minimum wage.

Employees in the Firefighter I classification earned as little as $8 per hour, a dollar less than the state minimum wage that went into effect July 1. The 12.5 percent increase fixes that for now, and the contract amendment under consideration grants another 12.5 percent raise next year, ahead of the state’s hourly minimum going to $10 in 2016. Some fast-food workers earn more.

“I don’t know of another fire department in the state whose pay is impacted by a change in the minimum wage,” said union President Mike Lopez. “It’s an embarrassment.”

And disparate salary increases contribute to compaction, he said, which occurs when salaries for lower classifications surpass those for positions higher up the org chart.

“We have company officers making more (base pay) than their supervisors,” Lopez said.

Beyond that, many members are insulted that employees at the bottom rungs get a big pay percentage boost while workers higher up get a fraction of that.

A state pay survey earlier this year found that state firefighters’ wages and benefits lag behind those of their local counterparts by an average 33 percent. During fire season, the gap particularly grates on firefighters who are working the fire lines with federal and local government counterparts who are earning more.

“They don’t want to hear that the governor doesn’t want to give them a raise,” Lopez said.

The union doesn’t expect the state to close the gap next year, but Lopez said he wants to see “a path” to relieving compaction triggered by increases to the minimum wage. He wants those entry-level pay raises to ripple up.

Voting on the amendment ends Oct. 29. The results will be a referendum on firefighters’ faith in Brown, because the deal calls for more salary talks early next year. They have to wonder, once the November election is over, will Brown open the state’s wallet? Or will wages give way to other gubernatorial priorities?

Lopez said he doesn’t know how his members will vote. He’s heard from plenty of naysayers who want to send a message, “but then, you won’t hear from a lot of people who are for it.”