Letters to the Editor

Do CalFire employees really make minimum wage?

Will Swaim
Will Swaim

Union leaders representing state firefighters say they’ll launch a media blitz, the opening move in an effort to boost member pay before their contract ends in 2017.

Their central claim: “We’re not sure if the general public knows that we have seasonal firefighters making $10 an hour,” a director for Local 2881 told The Sacramento Bee (“California state firefighters take pay complaints public”; Sacbee, July 1).

We’re supposed to be shocked by the thought of public-safety workers risking their lives in exchange for the lowest hourly pay allowed by state law.

But there are several problems with that claim.

Seasonal firefighters are by definition hired temporarily to stretch capacity during the demanding fire season. Requirements are minimal: Applicants must be at least 18, able to “live compatibly in a fire station with others,” and know “good physical work methods.”

CalFire portrays seasonal work as a kind of internship leading to generous full-time jobs. On one hand, you’re paid $10 an hour; on the other, you get that for each 72-hour shift – three days during which nothing (or everything) may happen. At the end of it, there’s the chance you’ll win lifetime employment with Cal Fire or another department, and retire after 30 years with a six-figure pension.

So it’s no surprise that applications for seasonal work are so plentiful that CalFire accepts sign-ups for just three months, from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31.

Commenters on The Bee story included three union supporters who can be identified as firefighters. In 2014, the latest year for which such data is available, they earned $92,417; $104,114; and $166,154.

Looking around the state at their counterparts in wealthier departments has to be a shock to the average CalFire employee. Search “firefighter” on the Transparent California website, and you’ll find hundreds of public-safety employees in other agencies earning over $200,000 per year.

The answer to that moral and financial outrage is not to make CalFire employees wealthy, too.

Will Swaim is vice president of the California Policy Center, and was founding editor of OC (Orange County) Weekly. Contact him at will@calpolicycenter.org.