Most fire fighters do not get Social Security, so they completely count on the pensions they have contributed to, been promised and earned over a career. Take their pensions away or cut their pensions and you have fire fighters who risked their lives over a career to save others living in destitution, on public assistance, meaning the taxpayers have to foot that bill, too.
– Harold A. Schaitberger, President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Press Release Sept. 26, 2013
The implication in Mr. Schaitberger’s remark, apparently, is that $234,000 per year isn’t enough to permit someone to save enough money to avoid “living in destitution.”
Here’s how Orange County’s full-time firefighters did in 2011, according to data from their own website (ref. OCFA Employee Compensation, 2011 – Grand Jury Format). Anyone who wishes to verify all of the calculations referenced in this post can download the spreadsheet produced by the California Public Policy Center.
Slicing this data another way, during 2011 there were 47 OCFA firefighters who made over $300,000, and another 594 firefighters who made less than $300,000 but more than $200,000. That is, out of a full-time workforce – not including support personnel – of 747 firefighters, 641 of them made over $200,000 in total compensation during 2011. The average general physician practicing in California reported an average annual salary of $182,200 per year to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012. To be able to do this, doctors need eight years of postsecondary schooling and three years of training and residency before they can legally practice. This is comparable to the average direct pay of veteran OCFA firefighters, and it is unlikely that doctors collect benefits that are nearly comparable to OCFA’s, which on average add another $76,000 per year to their total compensation.
A phone call to OCFA revealed that when there is a need, an announcement is posted on their website inviting people to apply to become firefighters. During the last call for applicants, between May 13 and June 13, “thousands” of people applied for 30 positions. According to the spokesperson, anyone may apply.
It is important to emphasize that total compensation is the only proper way to measure how much someone really makes. And several factors combine to make the average total compensation for OCFA firefighters, $234,000 per year, a misleadingly low number. The primary reason for this is because their retirement health benefits and retirement pension benefits are woefully underfunded (ref. “Orange County Pensions At Risk – Unions Just Call Critics “Extremists“). This means that unless the benefits are cut, or the firefighters themselves start contributing far more of their direct earnings to these funds via payroll withholding, the employer share of the payment will have to increase.
Another factor that is important to consider is the actual hourly and daily pay. Firefighters working “suppression” shifts log a lot of work hours. The average OCERS firefighter worked 2,877 hours of normal shift time, plus another 861 hours of overtime shifts. This translates into 156 shifts of 24 hours each. But included in these hours are, for firefighters with 10 years service or more, vacation hours that equate to 12 shifts of 24 hours each (ref. OCFA MOU, page 44). This means that even including overtime, the average OCERS firefighter worked 144 days and was off 221 days. Obviously working 24 hour shifts represent a sacrifice. But during these shifts firefighters are eating and sleeping. And if the cost of firefighter pensions weren’t so expensive, it would be possible to hire more firefighters in order to eliminate so much overtime. If OCFA firefighters collected zero overtime, they would still have collected average total compensation of $190,000 during 2011, and they would have worked – taking into account vacation time – 108 shifts of 24 hours each and had 257 days off. There’s more. For example, firefighters accrue sick leave without limit and after 20 years of service may collect 100% of the value of their accrued sick leave as additional pay. Wasn’t sick leave supposed to be for when you’re sick?
What about the average pension for an OCFA firefighter? If you assume that only direct pay and “specialty pay” are eligible, if you assume that the average salary is the same as the final salary (not even close), and if you assume there are no incidences of “spiking,” the “pension eligible pay” on average for an OCERS firefighter is $106,000. If they work 25 years, with their 3.0% per year multiplier, they may expect a pension of $80,000 per year. This estimate is undoubtedly lower than reality.
It’s a long way from $80,000 per year to “destitution,” Mr. Schaitberger.
There’s nothing wrong with paying firefighters more than what the market might offer based purely on their skills and work hours, because firefighters incur risks in their jobs that most jobs don’t impose. And there’s nothing wrong with paying more than market rates in order to attract the most capable people to fill these positions. But it is important to counter claims that firefighters are on the brink of “destitution,” and therefore cannot agree to anything more than token concessions with respect to their pay and benefits.
How much someone should make is a very subjective and contentious issue. But it is probably reasonable to suggest that firefighters should not make more than doctors. Nor should they make more than four times as much as the average citizen they serve. And since they earn direct pay that is on par with top management in most private firms, they should be able to save for their own retirements. Insisting on a pension after 25 years of work that pays at least five times as much as the average Social Security benefit available after 40 years of work is not financially affordable nor fair. Saving the defined benefit may well depend on returning – retroactively and across the board – to pension benefit formulas that were in effect 20 years ago, before we had booms, bubbles, and bloated benefit binges.
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center.