Over on the Sterling Heights Local Politics Facebook Group, much ado is currently being made out of how much firefighters get paid. One of the local looney tunes has gotten his hands on the city’s 2019 budget and apparently thinks that a proper salary analysis consists of taking the total budget for salaries and then dividing it by the number of employees. This sort of thing, predictably, leads people to conclude that firefighters, a group of working-class and middle-class people if there ever was one, are somehow rolling in the dough, making an average of $180+K per year.
Let’s clear this thing up, shall we? Click the link below and you’ll have the most recent contract I can find, which, by the way, appears to have expired on June 30th of last year and hasn’t yet been renewed:
Labor Contracts are Extremely Complex
If you can be troubled to read the contract, you will learn that labor union contracts spell out in excruciating detail how much every job classification gets paid, what bonuses, if any, are given on an annual basis, how frequently employees can expect raises, and what supervisory employees are paid in terms of a percentage on top of what the people they manage are paid.
Reading a labor union contract such as the one linked above doesn’t require a law degree, but in order to follow what’s going on, you have to not only absorb the content of the pay tables given in Appendix A, but also the details in the other parts of the contract that modify those wages. These details are complex, because they describe a complex set of duties, what they consist of, how they are classified, and what modifications, if any, someone with that job classification has to the base wage scale. For example, a firefighter in the Extinguishment division who is also a licensed paramedic gets a 6% increase over his or her base pay. Someone who is trained and qualified to be a fire engine operator (FEO) gets a 4% increase. If a worker is on the Hazmat or Technical Rescue teams, they get a 1.5% increase. There are rules about how many of these increases can apply; I believe from my reading, for example, that you can’t be on both the Hazmat and the Technical Rescue team, so you can’t “stack” the increases to 3%.
In addition you have to understand the concept of “steps.” Steps are a system by which the workers are progressively paid more, i.e. given raises, as they put in their time over a period of months and years. As it happens, in the firefighter contract, each “step” corresponds to six months on the job. This is similar to getting a salary review twice a year in the private sector. Some steps have larger increases than others; these are negotiated when the contract is written, just like everything else. Negotiating a contract is a balancing act: both sides have to act in good faith, and both of them have to get what they need out of the negotiation without taking too much away from the other side. It’s tricky business, and it requires skills that most people, myself included, do not have.
In addition to “steps” there is also the concept of longevity pay. You see, there are only so many steps spelled out in the contract, and if it isn’t in the contract, you cannot proceed to another, higher step. After a worker rises to the highest step, the only way he or she gets a pay increase is via either an annual cost of living increase that is specified in the contract, by continuing his or her education and acquiring new certifications or college degrees, or by going off somewhere and finding a new career! So in order to entice the most senior people to stick around, they also get annual bonuses for longevity which start at 5 years of service, and increase at 10, 15 and 20 years of service.
For example, a 20+ year employee will get a $2,700 annual bonus on top of his or her regular pay. Now it is important to understand something: 20+ year employees are the exception, not the rule in the fire service. There are 40-hour employees like inspectors and some of those folks might have some grey in their hair and qualify for the 20+ year annual longevity bonus. On the other hand, fire extinguishment is, by and large, a younger person’s game.
Just like with any demanding, physical job, a firefighter’s body starts wearing out, and the number of still working employees in their late 40s are far fewer than people in their 20s and 30s. This mirrors what we see in professional athletes; there aren’t too many who make it past 40. There probably aren’t many, if any at all, in the Extinguishment division who go running into burning buildings who are enjoying the 20+ year bonus — they would be at an absolute minimum 38 years old, and hired directly into the department at 18, and that just doesn’t happen at SHFD. I haven’t surveyed the employees to find out the counts of how many qualify for each level of longevity, but suffice it to say there are not a lot who handle a hose getting that 20 year bonus, if any.
Another thing to know is that there are pay modifiers for fire fighters who have certain levels of education. The primary modifier appears to be whether or not they are certified in Advanced Life Support (ALS), but there are increases for other certifications depending on job class, as well as increases for people who hold college degrees from accredited institutions. These bonuses aren’t large, they amount to several hundred dollars per year at maximum, and more often $100 or $200.
Suffice it to say, you don’t figure out what the average guy is making with simple long division.
So what DO they get paid, anyway?
But enough of all this. I’ve gotten the basic idea across that firefighter pay is complicated stuff and you have to really read and understand the contract to know what they get paid. If you really want to know all of the details, you’ll have to sit down and read it for yourself. Let’s answer the basic question: what does a firefighter get paid?
Turn to Appendix A, and look at the pay levels that came into effect in 2017, when a 1.5% cost of living increase was applied over the previous year. (Note, by the way, that 1.5% is a measly increase compared to the private sector, which averaged 3.0% from 2016-2017.)
A brand new firefighter, assuming he or she was trained in Advanced Life Support, started at $15.00 per hour, or $43,708 per year. After five years on the job, assuming they don’t move up to Fire Engine Operator and get that 4% bonus, they will top out at Step 10, which pays $26.69 per hour, or $77,728 per year. They will then qualify for the five year level longevity bonus of $1,300 per year, so they’ll make $79,028 per year before taxes. That is, assuming they like the work, don’t get injured, perform up to some rather high expectations, and the city doesn’t go through a budget crisis like it did in 2008-2009 and lay a bunch of them off.
Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains make more, but it isn’t a whole lot more. The top step for an ALS-certified Sergeant is $28.02/hour or $80,793 per year. An ALS-certified Captain — and there aren’t many of those folks — tops out at $33.46/hour, or $97,433 per year. Presumably, once they rise to that level they are getting some other bonuses for education, certifications, and longevity as well, so their base pay, not including any overtime, might break into the low six figures. In other words, they’ll be at the top of their profession, and making roughly what a 5-year I.T. programmer makes in the private sector in California.
Where are all of the $180K Firefighters?
Now you and I can debate about whether or not that is too much, but realize this: it isn’t $180K/year no matter how you cut it. The city has to pay some employment costs for training and the like. It also is paying for at least a portion of the health insurance, and from what I can tell it is not nearly the equivalent of the health insurance I enjoy in the private sector. There are also deductibles and co-pays, which once upon a time were unheard of for union employees. There’s dental coverage, vision coverage, etc., and all of these things are at the city taxpayer expense, but you have to realize that the city is not operating in a vacuum: if they don’t pay a competitive wage, they won’t be able to get people to do the work. It’s the same everywhere, whether you’re in the public or the private sector, working behind a desk like I do, or driving a fire truck and saving lives and property.
Would you risk your life every day for $79,000 per year?
This might not sit well with a lot of people, but, personally, they couldn’t pay me enough to do that job, so I don’t have much of a problem with the 5-year firefighter making $79,000 before taxes. I don’t run into burning buildings, I don’t perform CPR on resident’s kitchen floors, and I don’t cut people out of wrecks in the middle of the road. And true, while I am in my fifties and in my peak earning years, the biggest injury I’m going to suffer is eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome, yet I make a hell of a lot more money writing code than those guys do for saving lives. I never have to leave my house in the wintertime, I have much better medical benefits, and I am eligible for bonuses that put the ones that these guys get to shame. If I don’t show up for work, somebody’s software might not get fixed that day. If a firefighter/paramedic doesn’t show up for work, somebody might die that day.
Nowhere in my employee handbook does the company I work for feel the need to describe what will happen if I have the bad manners to suddenly die on the job. I can purchase life insurance through my company cafeteria benefit plan, but that’s about it. You see, computer programmers usually die of old age; typically they don’t risk electrocution via their keyboards; there just aren’t a lot of occupational hazards in that kind of work that are fatal. For firefighters, it’s a different story, and there is a rather sobering section of the contract that spells out what happens to provide for the firefighter’s family should he or she get killed on the job.
When you get through the entire contract, consider what these people are asked to do every day, and then consider the potential consequences to their health and well-being, I think they’re paid fairly. And it’s nowhere near the crazy number that you’re reading online.
But Isn’t A Hundred Grand Per Year Wealthy?
And for those of you for whom $79,000 sounds like a lot of money? It isn’t. It’s a middle class wage at best, and not an upper middle class wage. If the firefighter’s spouse is also working, and the firefighter gets a great deal of overtime, then yes, they can do pretty well for themselves. Remember how I’ve told you that I make considerably more than a firefighter? I’m still taking out loans to put my kid through college, I drive vehicles that are eight and eleven years old respectively, I’ve got a mortgage like everyone else, and bills to pay. The price of entry into the upper middle class — where you’re truly comfortable — probably starts around $175,000 per year for a family of four leading a modern lifestyle in a modestly well-appointed home in a place like Sterling Heights. Nobody working for the SHFD is in any danger of becoming wealthy. Not even the Fire Chief.
If you want a crazy high salary, go get a senior management job at GM or FCA.