Average Pay for Manhattan Beach Firefighters is $328,000 Per Year
Negotiations between the Manhattan Beach Firefighters Association and the Manhattan Beach City Council have been stalled since May, when an impasse was announced. As reported in a local publication serving Manhattan Beach and nearby cities, firefighters and their supporters packed a July 19 city council meeting to urge the council to alter its stance in labor negotiations.
In the article, “Firefighters from Manhattan Beach and their supporters storm City Hall,” some of the firefighter union’s positions were noted. One of them was for the firefighters to receive “the same cost of living salary increases the other city unions received over the last 3.5 years, a period during which MBFA has not received an increase.”
In that regard, it would be useful to report what full time firefighters with the Manhattan Beach Fire Department earned in 2021, using data downloaded from the State Controller’s website.
A few things should be called out in the above chart. First – the employee compensation data the City of Manhattan Beach reported to the State Controller did not include any allocation of the payment the city makes towards the unfunded pension liability. This means the numbers you see in the “pension” column are for the so-called “normal cost” and therefore no argument can be made that they are inflated. One could make the argument that since no allocation whatsoever is made to active duty firefighter compensation to account for the city’s substantial unfunded pension debt, the average per firefighter pension costs reported here are understated. But that’s material for another story.
Next, the context in which Manhattan Beach firefighters claim they have not received cost of living increases commensurate with what other city unions received over the last 3.5 years might reasonably include how much firefighters earn in other cities. Here, using 2020 data, is average compensation for full time firefighters in the 25 largest city departments in California. The yellow-highlighted top four cities all include payments on the unfunded pension liability in their reported data and therefore probably overstate the total compensation. As can be seen, however, even taking that into account, only one city, Santa Clara, reports total compensation in excess of Manhattan Beach. None of the other cities are even close. This data is one year old, but it is a safe bet that Berkeley, for example, did not increase its total firefighter compensation by 28 percent ($71,000) in one year [(328/257)-1].
Finally, what stands out with respect to Manhattan Beach firefighter compensation is the large amount of overtime they’re earning, $94,000. None of the major cities have anything close to that in overtime expense. Why is this?
In a letter the City Council released on July 19, the city attempted to explain this, writing:
“The Firefighters’ Association has repeatedly stated they receive overtime for hours worked beyond their normal hours. This is not true. Just because a firefighter receives overtime does not mean they are working time over their regularly scheduled hours. For example, a firefighter can be on vacation for two shifts but work another shift in the same week and receive overtime. Similarly, two firefighters can work each other’s vacation shifts and receive overtime without working any additional hours. This is because vacation, holiday leave, and injury pay count as “hours worked” to qualify for overtime.
One of the City’s proposals to reduce overtime addresses the current system in which every shift taken as leave is automatically backfilled with overtime by allowing shift trades (two firefighters working for each other). This proposal allows employees to take the same amount of time off while reducing the payment of time and a half overtime when firefighters are not working any additional hours. This, in effect, limits the number of shifts that will be backfilled on an overtime basis. The City is also proposing to remove the ability to convert unused sick leave into vacation, which creates further backfill of overtime. The Association has not agreed to these simple provisions because it will reduce the amount of overtime pay they receive.”
In plain English, what the city council is saying is that Manhattan Beach firefighters game the rules to collect overtime even though they aren’t working extra hours. It is reasonable for the city council to attempt to rewrite the rules so this will stop.
Compensation and benefits for public safety personnel is a fraught topic, and hyperbole does nothing to foster constructive outcomes. How much should a firefighter make? It’s fine to throw out statistics that prove the average life span of a retired California firefighter is actually somewhat greater than that of the public at large, or that statistically, a cashier behind a liquor store counter is more likely to die on the job than a firefighter. But that fails to take into account the fact that a horrific conflagration, such as the World Trade Center bombing, could alter those statistics overnight, and firefighters go to work with that knowledge every day. Liquor store clerks, as we learned during the pandemic, may provide what some deem as “essential services,” but they’re not the ones who come running to help when our house is burning down, or a family member is having a medical emergency.
Using statistics also can overlook the fact that the value of life has never been so precious. A century ago, disease, war, and accidents claimed lives with such frequency that death was a normal part of life. Today, especially in a city as wealthy as Manhattan Beach, death is never routine. Citizens therefore have never had higher expectations of their fire departments than they have today, and better service is going to cost more. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to argue with a firefighter who is a member of the community and believes they deserve a raise. But in Manhattan Beach, with respect, they don’t.
Firefighters that collect a pay and benefits package in excess of $300,000 per year are not underpaid. Maybe they can’t afford a home in Manhattan Beach. But that’s because nobody can afford a home in Manhattan Beach. Maybe it’s gotten harder to recruit firefighters. But that’s because it’s gotten harder to recruit anyone to take jobs in recent years.
Firefighters in Manhattan Beach should ask themselves: Is my job harder than one in San Diego, where the average firefighter pay and benefits package is less than half what it is in Manhattan Beach? Clearly it’s not. Work through a Saturday night in downtown San Diego, and compare that to working the night shift on a weekend in Manhattan Beach. There are over 30,000 full time firefighters in California. To pay all of them what firefighters make in Manhattan Beach, instead of what firefighters make in San Diego, would cost taxpayers $4.5 billion per year.
Maybe Manhattan Beach firefighters, along with the unions representing firefighters in other cities, might reconsider their involvement with organizations that are destroying the quality of life in California. They might reconsider their political alliance with leftist unions such as the CTA, or the leftist California Labor Federation headed by Lorena Gonzalez. Maybe they should consider using their political power to create jobs and opportunities in California by supporting legislation that helps small businesses and rolls back extreme environmentalist regulations. If they did that, maybe we could lower the cost of living in this punitively expensive state. Doing that would mean everyone, in effect, would get a raise.
This article originally appeared in the California Globe.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center.