San Diego Firefighters May Win Seven-Year Battle To Restore Key Benefit

San Diego —  

San Diego’s status as the only city in California where firefighters lack death-and-disability benefits may soon be coming to an end after a seven-year battle.

City labor negotiators and the city’s firefighters union recently reached a deal to provide those benefits to more than 350 firefighters hired since San Diego voters approved the 2012 Proposition B pension reform ballot measure.

City negotiators also want to extend the deal to all 4,000 city workers hired since Proposition B, which eliminated pensions for newly hired employees except police officers and gave them 401(k)-style retirement plans instead.

In addition to eliminating pensions, Proposition B wiped out death-and-disability benefits for newly hired workers except police officers, because those benefits provide guaranteed, long-term payouts similar to a pension.

Roughly 7,000 city employees have death-and-disability benefits, and about 4,000 don’t.

The deal reached by city negotiators and the firefighters union, which is expected to easily win City Council approval, was presented to the council Tuesday in a session closed to the public because it is a labor negotiation.

The deal is being described as “interim,” because a state appeals court last month ordered San Diego to restore all employee benefits removed under Proposition B because the measure was placed on the ballot illegally.

Despite that, city labor leaders said this week that restoring death-and-disability benefits immediately is crucial because it could take years to invalidate Proposition B through the courts.

“Although the path of Proposition B still appears to be uncertain, we cannot allow our firefighters to continue risking their lives unprotected,” Jesse Connor, president of the city’s firefighters union, told the council Tuesday.

All San Diego police officers and other city workers hired before Proposition B are guaranteed a death-and-disability benefit.

If the city employee dies in the line of duty, their spouse gets 50 percent of their base salary for the rest of the spouse’s life.

If the city employee suffers injuries in the line of duty that make them incapable of continuing to work, they get 50 percent of their base salary until they die, and then their spouse gets 25 percent of their base salary until the spouse dies.

Under the deal reached between the city and the firefighters union, the 4,000 workers hired since Proposition B would start receiving the same benefit.

“It’s a reasonable benefit that is literally enjoyed by every municipal worker across the country,” Connor said in a phone interview Friday. “I don’t want to go up to a microphone with a widow and explain why she needs a benefit.”

The benefit is particularly crucial to San Diego city workers because they aren’t part of the federal Social Security system and the disability benefits that it provides, labor leaders said.

The city does have a long-term disability plan that covers all workers, but the benefits under that plan last for one year at most, the labor leaders said.

“It’s important to us because it’s another example of the complete lack of a safety net,” said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the Municipal Employees Association. “Any self-respecting employee should have something like this, and we hope the city gets there.”

Since Proposition B, no San Diego firefighters or other city employees have died or become permanently disabled in the line of duty.

Connor said that’s a fortunate circumstance, but it doesn’t mean the city should consider putting the families of firefighters and other city workers at risk of financial ruin.

He noted that seven firefighters died across California in 2018, six fighting wildfires and one shot at a crime scene.

While Proposition B wiped out death-and-disability benefits, it required city officials to begin providing some sort of similar benefit to firefighters and lifeguards.

City officials issued two requests for proposals from financial and insurance companies to accomplish this, but could never reach a deal.

Connor said the primary problem was that companies offering such benefits only do so with a defined benefit, like what city employees hired before Proposition B receive.

But city officials wanted the new death-and-disability benefits to be more like a 401(k), where employees would contribute money that would be invested and there would be no guarantee of a specific payout.

“It’s been kind of a hot potato for the city,” Connor said.

City officials essentially gave up on a solution until Connor took over as president of the firefighters union last year and made it a priority.

He persuaded city officials to add the possible payout of a death-and-disability benefit to the city’s insurance risk pool, which also covers payouts for litigation and some other unexpected financial obligations.

“It will cost the city nothing unless somebody is actually killed or permanently disabled,” Connor said.

The deal would expire three years after it takes effect. Connor said he expects the Proposition B litigation to be resolved by then, restoring the death-and-disability benefit. If that hasn’t happened, he said a new interim deal could be negotiated.


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