Island Talkback: Firefighters respond to pension, pay concerns
By Domenick Weaver
As we once again enter the process of developing the budget of the City of Alameda, many questions have been raised about the fiscal practices and management of the city. Some questions have arisen about public safety contracts and post employment benefits. I would like to set the record straight as to how these things came to be, and dispel rumors that the firefighters are out to “bankrupt the city.”
Since 1997, the Alameda Fire Department staffed five fire engines, two fire trucks and three ambulances with 27 firefighters 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 2009, 18 street-level firefighter positions were eliminated and the engine company serving Alameda Point and West Alameda was closed and staffing reduced to 24 firefighters on duty per day. The fire prevention bureau was virtually eliminated and our training division was cut by 50 percent. The marine operations program providing fire boat and water rescue service was shut down.
The department had been plagued with mandatory (forced) overtime that required members of an understaffed department to work an additional 20 percent annually. By 2007, the department incurred over $2.2 million in overtime costs. The firefighters have been on record with city officials back to 2005 that these practices were not only fiscally irresponsible but also dangerous.
Recently, the salaries of all city employees were posted on the Internet and several misinformed, emotional responses have been posted as follow-up comments. In an effort to assist the city with meeting budget challenges, the firefighters, police officers, electrical workers, management and confidential employees, and employees represented by the Alameda City Employees Association have all taken no salary increases since 2007. Concessions have been made in regards to vacation benefits and we are all continuing to work together with the city find ways to restructure our contracts and meet the ever-changing needs of the city.
When you see the reported salaries of Alameda firefighters, that number is likely to include overtime dollars and varies between employees (even within the same classification) based on how much they worked. Your Alameda firefighters are scheduled to work 2,912 regular hours per year, or 56 hours a week. That is over 800 more hours per year of regular work than the standard 40 hour per week employee.
In comparison with like-sized fire departments in like-sized cities throughout the Bay Area, our firefighters are already near the lowest end of the pay scale. Alameda firefighters earn a base salary of $31.63 per hour. Apparatus operators earn $34.45 per hour, and fire captains earn $39.24 per hour.
If a firefighter earns overtime, it is for additional time spent on duty. The overwhelming majority of it is for maintaining the 24 firefighters on duty each day to respond on about 6,000 calls for service per year. It should also be noted and understood that overtime earnings are NOT pensionable.
Firefighting and responding to emergency medical calls is a dangerous occupation. Firefighters have a 100 percent increased chance of contracting certain cancers, and are exposed to highly communicable diseases on a regular basis. We work in environments of extreme heat and stress, close quarters and conditions that can be described as “less than desirable.” These increased risk factors and exposures are brought into the firefighter’s home.
Currently, Alameda firefighters receive post-employment benefits that include health care for themselves and their spouse. The city pays for the health care plan until the retired firefighter reaches Medicare age, and after that, pays for a Medicare supplement plan at a considerably reduced rate. To qualify for this benefit, firefighters must have at least five years of service and have reached retirement age. In Alameda, the average years of service from a firefighter are 27.
Medical benefits have become more expensive for all of us, both public and private sector. Increases in the cost of health care have exceeded the provisions of the contracts, and many city employees (including police officers and firefighters) are in fact paying out of pocket for the difference in their health care. Your firefighters have been working in negotiations to solve these issues for both active and future retirees with a goal of long-term responsibility and sustainability.
The pension issue has been an issue of contention since poor market performances have affected the city’s contribution rates to CalPERS. What many of you may not know is that your police officers and firefighters have been contributing 9 percent of their salary towards the retirement system since the city joined CalPERS in the early 1990s. Again, we have actively been working in negotiations with the city to find solutions to make the system sustainable and consistent with our like workers.
The Alameda firefighters are not to blame for the city’s financial woes. It makes no sense to say that the firefighters want to “bankrupt the city.” That would be incredibly self-destructive. The name-calling, blame-placing and finger-pointing has to stop. It is counterproductive, divisive and distracts from the real issues. Energy would be much better spent in working together to find fair and equitable solutions that ensure the economic sustainability of our city. These problems were not created overnight, and solutions must be found in a measured and collaborative method.
Finally, the Alameda Firefighters Association IAFF Local 689 is not an organization that is represented by outside business agents or “union bosses.” The leadership of our organization is completely comprised of active duty Alameda firefighters who volunteer to spend their time working with the city to find solutions. They are the same people who respond on your emergencies and support a plethora of community activities in an off-duty capacity. We have been, and will continue to be, willing partners in this community to help Alameda be the best it can be for decades to come.
Domenick Weaver is the president of the Alameda Firefighters Association.