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December 11, 2018
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Firefighter Benefits- Just Facts
Updated On: Jul 14, 2017

Firefighters do not receive Social Security

Because firefighters (like other public employees) are not eligible to receive Social Security, their employers - the cities and counties - do not pay the 6+% payroll tax for Social Security.  While the employers see a payroll cost savings, this also means retired firefighters can't collect the Social Security benefit available to all other Americans.  The lack of Social Security benefits and the associated payroll savings to local government is rarely mentioned in discussions about public employee benefits.  Because firefighters can't collect social security, they have negotiated increased retirement benefits.

56 Hour Work Weeks While Earning 40% Less Hourly Rate

A 56 hour work-week is 40% more hours than the average worker's 40 hour week.  Firefighters in Livermore-Pleasanton work 48 hour shifts, and respond to emergencies at any hour, night or day, 365 days per year - even on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving when virtually no one else is working.  Because they work 40% more hours, but earn a salary comparable to any other technically skilled professional, their hourly wages are actually relatively low for a skilled profession.  In Livermore-Pleasanton, a firefighter with 20 years of experience earns $34.34 per hour (IAFF MOU Salary Schedule as of 07/01/2017).  A comparable earner in the private sector makes 40% more per hour than a firefighter.

Firefighter Overtime is not Factored into Retirement

Contrary to popular belief, overtime is not persable income and therefor is not used to determine retirement benefits.  Retirement calculations are factored off base pay, and is an average of your highest three consecutive year of earnings.

Firefighters are at Much Greater Risk for many Cancers

Due to the exposures faced by firefighters at fires, firefighters are at an increased risk for cancer.  Livermore-Pleasanton has had two line-of-duty deaths related to cancer- Deputy Chief Dennis Laurence who died of lung cancer in 2006 and Captain Paul Chenkovich who died in November 2013 of brain cancer. 

 study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on mortality and cancer incidence in career fire fighters shows an elevated risk of several types of cancer - and of all cancers combined - compared to the general U.S. population.  The following indicates the increased risk to firefighters for the following cancers:

Testicular cancer 102% 

Multiple myeloma 53% 

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma 51%  

Skin cancer 39% 

Brain cancer 32% 

Prostate cancer 28% 

Stomach cancer 22%  

Colon cancer 21%

(The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2010)

Retirement

Although some “classic” members have the ability to retire at age 50 with a 3% benefit formula, it is rare for any firefighter to retire at such a young age.  In order to retire at 50 with full benefits you would need to work thirty years and had to have been hired by age 20 to reach that goal.  Often times, firefighter candidates are in their late twenties and thirties prior to be being hired simply due to the minimum qualifications and competitive selection process.  Due to the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013 (PEPRA), new employees hired after January 1, 2013 must work to 57 in order receive a reduced 2.7% factor.  Additionally, annual salary used to calculate pensions is capped at $136,440.  PEPRA also mandated that by 2013 all employees contribute 50% of the normal total cost rate towards future pensions.  In 2008 Local 1974 employees paid 0% towards their pensions because the system was super funded-meaning the fund was self-sustaining due to CalPERS rate of investment returns.  Subsequent years saw rates stay very low and in some years non-existent.  When these rates began to rise, Local 1974 employees negotiated to keep benefits in lieu of wage increases.  By 2010 employees were paying 2%, 2012 6%, 2013 9%, 2015 10%, 2016 10.5%, and today pay 12% (MOU 2014-June 2018).  

Once the firefighter retires the city has no further financial obligation to the employee.  The pension is paid for by the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) through the joint city/employee contributions over the employee’s career.

How old is "Too Old" to rush into burning buildings?

Like the rest of the population, aging firefighters are at significantly higher risk of injury and illness - it is a young person's profession.  Due to the extremely strenuous nature of the job (with little or no "warm up time,") firefighters suffer higher rates of disabling occupational injury.  The older the firefighter, the more likely these injuries become, and recovery times (and cost) increase.   These injuries are expensive to taxpayers and firefighters, decreasing quality of life and requiring expensive treatment, overtime pay to replace the injured worker, which stresses already low staffing levels. Relatively low minimum retirement ages are recognition of these factors above all else.

CalPers is Performing Well and Is Solvent

With an average rate of return at 8.5% over the last 20 years, or 8.9% since 1988, the recent 11.2% rate of return posted for fiscal year 2016-17 brings CalPERS assets to more than $323 billion dollars.  This is the fourth double-digit return in the past five years (CalPERS Preliminary Report). Again, these pensions are a shared responsibility between investment earnings (67 cents of the dollar), in addition to employee (12 cents on the dollar) and employer contributions (21 cents on the dollar). CalPERS facts at a glance.

How do Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters Salaries/Benefits Compare?

Cities negotiate with labor groups to compile a list of comparable cities in which wages and benefits are compared.  These comparable agencies are relatively in a similar geographic area representing similar sized cities, employees, and populations served as best as possible.  As agreed by both cities, the LPFD is compared to 10 other cities, which are listed in the memorandum of understanding.  When comparing total compensation (Salary, Benefits), educational incentive, and paramedic incentive pay LPFD sits eighth out of 11 cities.  At the end of the current contract ratified by the cities this month it will increase its position to six of eleven.  I would assume this to fall lower as comparable cities contracts expire and negotiate for higher wages. 

Salary vs Cost of Living

It is very expensive to live in the Bay Area, especially in the Livermore-Pleasanton area.  In April 2017 KTVU News did a story on this which stated that $100,000 annual salary for a family of four in the Bay Area is considered low income.  See the article here.

As of July 2017 Pleasanton’s median home price is $1,000,000 while Livermore’s is $735,000 (Trulia.com).  An average of these two cities median home price is valued at $867,500.  It is becoming more difficult for firefighters to live locally in the tri-valley.  Firefighters attempting to own a home while raising their families are being forced to move north towards the delta or into the central valley.  This will negatively impact local residents in the event of a local emergency where an emergency recall is needed.  It will be difficult for commuting firefighters to travel into the Livermore-Pleasanton area, as freeways will be gridlocked.  In order to attract the best firefighters to the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department and have our firefighters live locally in the communities they are sworn to protect, it is vital the cities continue to compensate and provide benefits to keep Livermore-Pleasanton firefighters near the top of its comparable cities.

Overtime is Work

In addition to their longer 56 hour workweek, firefighters in California tend to make up for their relatively low hourly wages by working.  It is cheaper for employers to hire back off-duty firefighters on overtime than hiring additional personnel (Save on benefits).  During the summer months firefighters are doing the risky business of wildland firefighting, often gone from their families for up to two weeks, working 12-24 hour shifts on the fireline without rest.  Overtime for fighting fires outside of the county is reimbursed to the cities, including administrative and overhead fees, in such a way that there is NO COST to the cities and towns for this common overtime pay.  Like many private sector employees, many firefighters depend on this extra work to help make ends meet.


 
 
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