Zac Unger: Oakland Fire Union agrees to more than $6 million in cuts

22 Jul

This guest post is written by, Zac Unger, a lifelong Oakland resident. He has been an Oakland firefighter for 11 years and serves as a member of the executive board of Local 55.

As some of you may have heard, the firefighter’s union has just approved a new contract by an 80-20 margin. Granted, I’m an Oakland Firefighter and a member of the union’s executive board, but I do think that our concessions represent a major show of good will in these bad economic times. Here are the details:

The bottom line is that we are increasing our workweek from 52 to 56 hours, while also taking an 8% hourly pay cut. This has the effect of leaving our overall yearly salary largely unchanged: decrease the pay, increase the hours. Essentially we’re all working four hours a week for free; it’s like a furlough, but we don’t get to take the time off. This saves the city money, since under Measure Y and other agreements, we have minimum staffing levels. Those four hours per week used to be covered by overtime, at time and a half, and they will now be covered by straight time, a significant savings for the city. In addition to reducing the amount of overtime used, this contract will also reduce the cost of overtime when we do use it, since overtime is based on an hourly wage, and that number has been reduced by 8%.

This is a four year contract; since we’ve been working without a contract for one year, there are three years remaining on this contract. We’re taking zero raise in the first year, zero in the second year, zero in the third year. We will be able to reopen the contract for the last year, but only in regards to the issue of money. So basically: three years of nothing, with a re-opener in the last year, and no guarantee of raises at any point during this four year contract.

Next, we agreed to a change in the way the city covers our medical benefits. It will result in the union membership contributing about $300,000 more per annum, another good savings for the city. In total, the Union has made about $6 million worth of concessions while not reducing the level of service we provide to the citizens. In fact, due to a complicated provision we’ll be able to field an additional 41 paramedics at no increase in cost.

And finally, it’s always important to remember that Oakland Firefighters contribute 13% of our salary to our pensions. The Tribune misstated this; they said that we pay for thirteen percent of our pension, which would imply that the city pays for 87% of our pension. That’s quite incorrect. We pay an amount equal to 13% of our SALARY towards our pension; in some years the city pays nothing, and in some years they pay more than we do. For every $100 I earn, $13 goes directly to CALPERS without ever going into my pocket. This is important as a point of comparison to OPD. They contribute zero to their pension, so every $100 they earn is $100 in their pocket. It’s entirely fair to say that the city is 100% responsible for funding the retirement of the police. They do good work under tough conditions and I don’t begrudge them anything they get, but our situations are not the same. “Policeandfire” is not a monolith and can’t be viewed as having the same deal.

In past budget crises, the city has closed the gap by shuttering stations and reducing fire protection. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve come to an agreement that does not reduce service or increase the risks faced by the people of Oakland. We appreciate all of the support we’ve gotten over the years from everyone in Oakland, and we look forward to many more years of high level service.

11 Responses to “Zac Unger: Oakland Fire Union agrees to more than $6 million in cuts”

  1. Gene July 22, 2009 at 8:55 am #

    Thanks for the info, Zach.

    For those who don’t know, Zach is also the author of a book about being a firefighter in Oakland, Working Fire: The Making of a Fireman. A great read.

  2. Gene July 22, 2009 at 8:56 am #

    Oops! Sorry about the addition of an ‘h’ to your name.

  3. Robert July 22, 2009 at 9:21 am #

    Zach, does the $6M figure represent fewer dollars spent by the city and received by the firefighters, or does it include the 8% decrease in hourly salary, that with the increase of 8% in straight time hours results in not direct savings to the city? I understand that there is a secondary impact due to the overtime but I am asking about actual dollars saved by the city. The published budget does not give the actual total salary budget or overtime budget, so it is not possible to figure this from available information.

  4. zac unger July 22, 2009 at 10:05 am #

    That’s $6 million dollars in actual savings for the city. We now work those four hours for straight time, whereas in the past, those same hours had to be covered by an overtime guy making time and a half. So they used to pay the equivalent of 6 hours wages in order to cover 4 hours of actual time. Now they pay 4 hours to cover 4 hours. Every firefighter will work four more hours per week, for zero more dollars in pay. We are essentially eliminating positions without having to fire anyone. Please let me know if that’s clear; if not I’ll try again to clarify.

  5. Robert July 22, 2009 at 11:05 am #

    The first part seemed clear, but his sentence jsut confusted it, “Every firefighter will work four more hours per week, for zero more dollars in pay. We are essentially eliminating positions without having to fire anyone. ” Does essentially elinimating mean that head count in the FD will decrease?

    What I am asking comes down to this, will the line item in the FD budget for ‘Personnel Services’ (mostly salary and benefits) be reduced by $6M or by some other amount. I am just trying to understand the impact on the cities budget (deficit).

    • Robert July 22, 2009 at 11:06 am #

      sorry about the typos.

  6. zac July 22, 2009 at 11:36 am #

    The line item will be reduced by $6 million. This is actual, concrete savings.
    Now, a little more detail on how it works. Firefighters work every third day; 24 hours on followed by 48 hours off. This means that some weeks you work 48 hours and some weeks you work 72 hours. Under the old plan, firefighters got to skip skip every 14th shift. Thus, over a six week cycle, the weekly average was 52 hours per week. We called this skipped shift our “numbered day.” Since we have minimum staffing, when I took my numbered day off, my position had to be backfilled by somebody else, who was getting paid time and half to work that shift in my place.
    Now, we’ve eliminated our numbered day, so for every six-week cycle, we’ll all be working 56 hours instead of 52. I will now be working that numbered day for straight time rather than having someone else work it for time and a half. Since my hours have increased by 8%, my pay is also going down by 8% to keep my yearly salary the same, even though I increased my hours.
    The savings to the city comes from the difference between paying straight time and time and a half for all of those numbered days. We have about 450 firefighters, each of whom got an avg of 8.7 numbered days per year. We will not be reducing our staffing or laying anyone off, but we will be saving all the (expensive) man/woman-hours required to fill those numbered day shifts. We’ll still have the same number of firefighters, so no decrease in the cost of benefits (apart from the $300,000 per year that we’ve agreed to contribute to our health plan).
    I hope that explains it. Bottom line: $6 million bucks that stay in city coffers rather than being paid out as overtime to firefighters.

  7. Robert July 22, 2009 at 5:25 pm #

    Thank you. That is exactly the information I was looking for. I have just seen too many numbers come out of city hall to take something on face value without following up. I certainly appreciate the sacrifice your union has made. I am just surprised that there was that much planned overtime in the budget.

  8. Ralph July 22, 2009 at 9:24 pm #

    i like firefighters. i like that we all recognize that the pain needs to be shared. thanks zac.

  9. len raphael July 24, 2009 at 8:09 pm #

    z, how did it come about that firefighters pay 100% of their pension cost, but cops pay 0, and other city workers pay something in between?

    • zac July 26, 2009 at 7:49 am #

      I’m not sure exactly how it came to pass, but the number has been steadily growing to its current rate of 13%. It was 9% as recently as a few years ago. I think it’s always politically easier to make cuts to firefighters than it is to cops, and so that’s what’s been done. I think we’ve also figured over the years that we actually move forward if we, for example, take a 5% raise while simultaneously agreeing to a 5% PERS giveback. Overtime and retirement pay are calculated on the base salary, not including the giveback, so raising the base salary as high as possible makes better sense. The drawback, of course, is that the public doesn’t realize we’re doing this massive 13% giveback. They see that we make roughly the same as the cops and think it ends there, without realizing that in real terms we make less.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: