Firefighters and Politicans
This past week, the city and the union representing Jacksonville’s firefighters reached an agreement that will cut firefighters pay by two percent and then freeze it for two years. However this will not result in any layoffs or demotions and the 26 new graduates of the fire academy will soon be on the job helping to keep us safe.
There were other concessions as well. Firefighters for the first time will be asked to contribute something to their own health insurance. Of course, that’s something to which private sector employees -- the ones that still get health insurance -- are very much accustomed.
This is a significant breakthrough. The city and its unions have been at loggerheads trying to work out a way to be fair to the workers, not cut public safety and other services while still finding a way to make some headway towards balancing the budget. And while some would say a pay cut is not a fair thing… a two percent cut is certainly preferable to a 100% cut.
According to the employment website “Indeed.com”, the average Jacksonville firefighter makes about $45,000 per year. That’s from a low of about $23,000 for a “Hotshot Wildland Firefighter” to $121,000 for a “Firefighter Senior Officer”. The coj.net website lists the base salary for a firefighter as $34,068 based on a 56 hour week (24hr on-48hr off=122 shift days/yr). As fire union president Randy Wise said on The Jacksonville Observer Radio show … these are the men and women who run into the burning building when everyone else is running the other way. They are certainly deserving of a decent wage.
Under ordinary circumstances, I don’t think anyone would ask such people to take a pay cut, but these are far from ordinary times, and the firefighters stepped up to the plate and did what was best for the city, and in an odd way for themselves. Most people, when faced with a small but still significant pay cut would rather take that than lose their job entirely.
The negotiators for the firefighters also agreed to a two-year wage freeze, at which point they would be restored to current levels. They will also pay $22 per month towards their individual health insurance, which is far less than nearly any private sector employee pays … if their employers offer it any longer.
So where does that leave the city? The numbers on how much the city will potentially save likely won’t be calculated until both the rank and file and the city council have an opportunity to vote on the plan. There will be significant savings, to be sure, but there is still a long way to go. Still it does set a precedent for continuing negotiations with the other city employee unions.
Pensions continue to be the 800 pound gorilla in the room. And there are other unions with which to negotiate pay and benefit packages. This agreement, it would seem, sets the stage for some of those of those other negotiations going forward, and could spell the difference in maintaining a level of service that we’ve come to expect from the city government. However, talks with the other bargaining units have reportedly broken down, and their futures now rest in the hands of a magistrate, and that’s something of a roll of the dice.
Mayor Peyton came into office saying he would run the city like a business, and that was a platform with which a lot of people seemed to agree. While it’s not always possible “run a city like a business,” there are certainly similarities. Labor negotiations are one, and any chief executive faced with a burgeoning gap between revenue and expenditures has to look at labor when looking at the bottom line. Millions of Americans have felt the sting of being part of that, both in terms of job loss and pay and benefit cuts.
Following the concessions made by the firefighters, Mayor Peyton and the City Council need to be sure they do everything the can to rein in spending. They owe that to those who have made the concessions. Most economic indicators continue to point to at least another year, or maybe more, of difficult economic times for Jacksonville and other cities across the nation. And if, at the end of the day, the package should be ratified by the rank and file and approved by the City Council… be sure to thank a fireman.