The State Worker

California state firefighters take pay complaints public

It’s a new fire season, but state firefighters are still battling an old problem.

Cal Fire Local 2881 says its been in contract discussions with Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration for a year. The talks are centered on the union’s complaint that local firefighters are paid more for less work.

With negotiations for pay raises at a stalemate, the union is turning to the public for help and launching a media campaign next week. The campaign, which includes television, radio and print advertisements, aims to “explain and reintroduce folks to the work, efforts and sacrifices” of state firefighters, said Terry McHale, public policy director for Cal Fire Local 2881.

“The morale of the firefighters in the field is the lowest that those of us who have worked around them have seen in two decades,” McHale said. “The high level of frustration and disappointment, which hasn’t been resolved, is driving them to go public and explain who we are.”

The union, which represents more than 6,000 Cal Fire workers, has requested higher wages for several years. A pay survey from 2014 found that state firefighters receive 33 percent less pay and benefits than their local counterparts.

The union contends that pay raises within its ranks have been largely prompted by minimum wage increases and disproportionately apply to entry-level employees. The unequal raises have created little incentive for firefighters to move into higher ranking positions.

In a letter to members outlining the problem and upcoming campaign, union president Mike Lopez wrote that only half of the expected participants showed up for a promotional fire captain test three months ago.

Cal Fire is losing firefighters to other departments left and right, said Tim Edwards, a state rank and file director for the local.

“We’re not sure if the general public knows that we have seasonal firefighters making $10 an hour,” Edwards said.

The union’s current contract expires in 2017. The two sides are discussing compensation under a clause that allows them to readdress wage increases before the contract ends, Edwards said.

A spokesman for Brown’s office declined to comment Friday.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna