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Two longtime labor leaders lost a bid on Tuesday to sweeten their pensions by getting credit for the holidays they say they didn’t take in the years they held the top positions at the union representing state firefighters.
The CalPERS Board of Administration rejected the request from the late Cal Fire Local 2881 President Bob Wolf and former union Rank-and-File Director Ken Hale, finding they could not boost their pensions with compensation for holidays despite their arguments they didn’t take a day off in the years they led the union.
Had they won their case, Hale and Wolfe could have received an extra $2,000 or $3,000 a year. Today, Hale and Wolfe’s survivors each receive pensions worth about $95,000 a year, according to CalPERS records.
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A favorable ruling for the union also would have benefited its current leaders.
While they led the union, Hale and Wolf were paid as if they were Cal Fire battalion chiefs. The union reimbursed the state for their time away from their state jobs.
Both union leaders cashed out unused leave and 14 floating holidays each year, but they gave up some potential compensation by working for the union. They could not get overtime, for instance, or certain kinds of specialty pay.
Cal Fire firefighters are paid on a complicated formula that reflects their standard 72-hour workweek. Wolf and Hale submitted time cards as if they worked those hours, according to documents filed by their attorneys and by CalPERS.
Almost 200 retired Cal Fire battalion chiefs have more lucrative pensions that Hale and Wolf, according to records kept by Transparent California.
“They gave up benefits they would have received had they stayed in their positions as battalion chiefs in the range unit and this is a very minimal request they’re making because they spent so much time over such a long period of time directly addressing the needs of the members, the needs of the state, the needs of Cal Fire,” their attorney, Lina Cockrell, told the CalPERS board. “It’s undisputed in the record the state expected them to be on duty 24 hours a day and the Cal Fire expected them to be on duty.”
CalPERS attorneys, however, argued that Hale and Wolf were seeking a benefit than no other Cal Fire employee has received.
Cal Fire firefighters are eligible to cash out four holidays a year and that pay could be incorporated into a pension, but the department has never actually allowed someone to be paid for unused holidays.
CalPERS board members also questioned whether Hale and Wolf in fact had to be on call in case of an emergency every day of the year.
“It’s clear they took their jobs very seriously and felt an obligation to respond,” CalPERS board member Bill Slaton said.
But there was no formal contract compelling the two leaders to be available around the clock.
“If it wasn’t written in the (contract), they made up their own rules,” CalPERS board member Rob Feckner said. “Most areas where people work side by side, they’d make an agreement, I’ll take vacation now. You cover. I’m going to take this holiday, you cover. So if there’s no written language in the (contract), they could have done that. Instead they chose to make the rules and not do that.”
Cal Fire Local 2881 is the union leading one of the primary challenges to parts of Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012 pension reform law. The union in a lawsuit expected to be heard by the state Supreme Court is arguing that the state must restore the right of employees hired before 2013 to buy “air time,” or additional years that could be credited to their pensions.