Salinas Firefighters Struggle With Staffing, Serve City Binding Arbitration Notice

SALINAS, CA — Salinas firefighters, frustrated with pay and overtime shifts, have served the city a binding arbitration notice in hopes of reaching an agreement in contract negotiations.

The department has been plagued by overtime with firefighters working 2,082 shifts of overtime in 2017, said Josh Hostetter, president of the Salinas Firefighters Association. These shifts are 24-hour shifts and 846 of these shifts were mandatory, said Hostetter.

The overtime shifts resulted in $2.7 million in overtime for the firefighters last year.

“Yes, there was a lot of overtime last year,” said Mayor Joe Gunter. “We had two major fires in the state and we sent firefighters well on overtime. We had no control over that. We are diligently hiring.”

Hostetter said the Salinas Fire Department has been struggling to hire and retain firefighters for the last couple of years.

There are currently 14 vacant firefighter positions within the city and 72 active firefighters, said Hostetter. The city is budgeted for 86 firefighters.

“This isn’t a fire management issue, this is a city management issue,” said Hostetter. “We don’t have a problem with our fire management. If the fire chief could hire people, he’d hire all the vacancies that we have right now but he’s not necessarily been given that ability.”

The department has been in contract negotiations with the city for the last 18 months to receive a more competitive salary and hopefully then fill vacancies, Hostetter said. He declined to say how much of a salary increase the firefighters are seeking but added that he feels they are not asking for much.

The fire department served the city their binding arbitration notice at the city council meeting Tuesday.

In binding arbitration, there are three arbitrators brought in, one on each side and a neutral arbitrator. The three arbitrators will take a look at the issues at hand, but the neutral arbitrator will ultimately decide how to resolve contract negotiations, which is binding by law, said Interim Fire Chief Brett Loomis.

This will be the third time an arbitrator will be brought in for Salinas Fire, with the first occurring in the early 2000’s that granted the firefighters an award in the form of a 23 percent increase.

The second arbitration notice came a few years later and result in a mediated agreement that did not involve in an arbitration award being given to the fire department, said Loomis.

“All I can say is we’re going through the process after they’ve notified us in writing of proceeding with the arbitration so that’s where we are,” said Salinas City Manager Ray Corpuz Jr.

The fire department saw a five percent pay increase in January, which Hostetter said was the first in over a decade.

“We’re just asking to give the guys a cost of living adjustment,” said Hostetter. “I don’t want people to think I’m not thankful for the job I have, but I want people to understand that this is a stressful job. It’s not just physically demanding, it’s demanding on your home life, it’s demanding on your body, on your mind to see that things that we see.”

The lack of a competitive salary, coupled with the amount of overtime they are subjected while sacrificing their days off are huge detractors for people looking at applying, said Hostetter.

Hostetter said 40 percent of the firefighters hired in the past five years have left to other departments for financial reasons.

“The last two firefighters that have worked on my engine company have left to other departments for more money, a significant amount more,” said Hostetter.

Loomis said the city and department have been actively attempting to hire new recruits for years now in an attempt to fill the vacancies.

“We’ve had a recruit fire academy every year, and some firefighters leave, some firefighters retire. Tragically, we’ve had some firefighters receive medical retirements due to injuries received on the job,” said Loomis.

Hostetter said the most frustrating part about the issue is that the city turns around and puts the blame on them, citing the amount of money they make from overtime that the department doesn’t want. Hostetter said the firefighters just want their days off.

During Tuesday’s mid-year budget review, Salinas Finance Director Matt Pressley said the city has compared savings of paying out overtime versus hiring new firefighters.

“It’s pretty much a wash, meaning paying someone time-and-a-half with their existing benefits, and paying overtime isn’t PERS-ible, so it doesn’t increase that PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) cost, versus getting a new person that has all the benefits,” said Pressley.

Hostetter said just this Sunday, a firefighter of six months who was a new recruit left for a better position in the Modesto area. Twelve of the last 33 new recruits have left, said Hostetter.

“If that employee leaves after a year, we’ve lost $200,000 dollars between his salary, the investment in the city, his equipment, his training,” said Hostetter.

The city pays for new recruit training, but there is no obligation for a new firefighter to stay with the department, said Loomis.

The city spends $5,000 on the hiring process alone with a background check and evaluations, said Loomis. Equipment runs around $10,000, hosting the annual fire academy costs $150,000 to $175,000 altogether and salary with benefits costs the department a significant amount for new recruits, said Loomis.

The fire department is bringing in their 10 new fire academy recruits on March 12.

Gunter said there’s always the potential the contractual dispute could be figured out sooner rather than later and he has good faith they can come to a resolution for the community.

“I have the deepest respect for our firefighters, we appreciate the service they provide,” said Gunter. “We provide a tremendous amount of medical calls every year and they do a great job for our community. We spend what we can afford to spend on all our employees.”

From The Californian