When a house is burning down, firefighters rush to save the occupants and put out the fire, often incurring personal risk in the process. Sometimes firefighters even die in the act of saving us. It’s a risk they accept when they take the job. That’s why we call them heroes. So why would firefighters participate in financial schemes that are, collectively, causing our civic budgets to go up in flames?
On September 12th, 2012, Governor Brown signed AB 340, “comprehensive pension reform” legislation that would, among other things, prevent the practice of pension spiking, where unused vacation payouts are added to the final amount of pay used to calculate a newly retired worker’s pension. But in Contra Costa County Superior Court, the International Association of Firefighters Local 1230, joined by the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, swiftly filed a lawsuit aimed at preventing the Contra Costa County Employees’ Retirement Association (CCERA) from implementing this provision of AB 340.
On November 29th, 2012, in an editorial entitled “Brown must defend pension laws he signed,” the Contra Costa Times explained the legal arguments on both sides. The firefighters contend their right to include unused vacation payouts in their final base pay in order to calculate their pension is a vested right. But the CCERA attorneys have argued differently – the Times writes:
“As the Contra Costa Employees’ Retirement Association’s own attorney pointed out in a legal memo three years ago, the promise violated past court rulings and consequently employees have been receiving improperly inflated retirement pay for years. The new law would put a long-overdue end to that practice.”
The point of the Contra Costa Times editorial is that nobody is stepping forward to defend this law. The CCERA does not intend to defend the anti-spiking provision of AB 340, despite their earlier positions that are consistent with the new law. Nor, at least so far, is the office of Kamala Harris announcing any plan to defend this provision of AB 340.
Then again, there’s the letter of the law, and there’s the spirit of the law. There’s the legal argument, and there’s the moral argument. Since when is cashed-out unused vacation supposed to be included as part of a base wage upon which to calculate pensions? And why are people who are sworn to protect our homes and our lives from fire willing to torch our attempts to balance our budgets and save our public institutions? Shall we immolate every public amenity we’ve built and cherish in order to pay firefighters? How much do they make, anyway?
Before launching into a recitation of just how unaffordable unionized firefighter compensation has gotten in California, it is obligatory to remind ourselves what they do. They work around the clock, risking their lives, to make sure we are safe. Whether or not firefighter unions have exploited this to manipulate the public and public officials into overpaying them, this remains a sobering fact. Witness one tragedy and witness their valor, and you won’t need reminding again. And life in America is safer and more secure than it has ever been. We put a higher value on our security, and have higher expectations of our public safety personnel, than we ever have. Life has never been so precious as it is today, and accordingly, the premium we ought to pay our firefighters has never been higher.
So how much do firefighters make?
It is still notoriously difficult to get good data on total compensation for public employees, but here’s a few facts we dug up. If you download this spreadsheet – Contra_Costa_County_Firefighter_Payroll_2011.xlsx – you will see two tabs. The first tab has data provided by the Contra Costa County Auditor Controller to a pension reform activist who passed it on to us. The second tab has data downloaded from the State Controller’s website. Both show 2011 firefighter payroll for Contra Costa County. Despite differences in formatting and information provided, the results between these two datasets are consistent. Here they are:
The average firefighter in Contra Costa County who earned more than $30,000 in base wages in 2011 (to eliminate volunteers, temp workers, and partial year hires) had an average base wage of $95,000, earned overtime of $37,000, collected “other earnings” (primarily health benefits) of $12,000, and collected an employer-paid contribution into their pension plan of $24,000 (far less than is necessary to properly fund their pensions, but that is another story), for average total compensation of $168,000. Bear in mind this is the average, meaning that the average pay at retirement is undoubtedly higher than that. Firefighters who work 30 years for Contra Costa County can reasonably expect to collect a retirement pension of around $100,000 per year. Is it necessary to pad this amount by another 15% by applying unused vacation to the final pay calculation?
Union spokespersons representing firefighters, along with those representing teachers, nurses and police, frequently say that compensation for their members must be elevated in order for them to be able to “afford to live in the communities they serve.” They are missing a key point: Nobody can afford to live in these communities. And the reason nobody can afford to live in these communities is because public sector unions, along with their allies in the environmentalist lobby and on Wall Street, have pooled their political influence to pass laws and regulations that have given California an unaffordable cost of living. Critics of right-to-work laws correctly point out that wages are lower in right-to-work states. What they ignore is the fact that the costs for everything – housing, water, gasoline, electricity, and taxes – are even lower. People make less in right-to-work states, but they have more disposable income. Perhaps that is an area where the allegedly conservative leaning public safety unions should focus their legal and political energy – a political agenda aimed at lowering the cost of living for everyone, instead of raising their own pay to unaffordable levels.
Why are they closing fire stations in Contra Costa County, when instead they could be simply paying firefighters less in wages, benefits, and pensions? Should firefighters really earn $168,000 per year in total compensation in return for working 2.5 (average for Contra Costa, including overtime) 24 hour shifts per week? Should firefighters really expect to retire with pensions of $100,000 per year after 30 years of work? Wouldn’t having more firefighters available to fight fires make their jobs safer, as well as the public? Why won’t firefighters of conscience, in Contra Costa County and throughout California, put their ideals of public service in front of their union’s inertia? When public sector compensation reformers attempt to extinguish the inferno of burning budgets, firefighters should be pitching in, not fanning the flames.