SAN DIEGO, CA — San Diego has reached a tentative labor deal with city firefighters that reduces costs for overtime and unused vacation in exchange for enhanced benefits and the first general salary hikes for firefighters in a decade.
The city’s 850 firefighters were the only labor group that hadn’t agreed to a new pact since Mayor Kevin Faulconer was elected in 2014.
The four-year deal and separate agreements reached earlier this month with three other city unions must be approved by the City Council in June. The council approved pacts with two other unions last year.
The firefighters wouldn’t get the salary hikes until summer 2018 because of voter-approved Proposition B, which also replaced pensions for newly hired firefighters — and all other city employees except police officers — with 401 (k) retirement plans.
The pay raises would be 3.3 percent in both fiscal year 2019 and 2020.
The enhanced benefits, which kick in immediately, include more money for uniforms, tuition reimbursement, parental leave, military assignments, parking and health care, including health care after retirement.
Forcing firefighters to work less overtime and use more of their vacation days will improve their effectiveness and save the city money, Faulconer said at a Tuesday morning press conference.
“The agreement with our firefighters includes reforms that both the city and the Fire-Rescue Department agree will improve overall effectiveness,” Faulconer said outside a fire station in Pacific Beach. “This is not only a fair deal, this is a very significant deal for our city.”
The leader of the firefighters’ labor union, Alan Arrollado, said the concessions in the contract prompted some “hand-wringing” among his members, but that they approved the deal by a 4-to-1 ratio last week.
A shortage of staff in recent years has led to more firefighters working overtime to meet city requirements that all stations be fully staffed at all times.
As a result, overtime expenses have climbed from 25 percent of the Department’s budget in 2013 to more than 31 percent this year.
“We are really understaffed, and we are making up the difference in overtime,” Arrollado said.
Among the changes to overtime are forcing firefighters to take at least 24 consecutive hours off after working 96 consecutive hours. The pact would also change the criteria for paying firefighters an even higher rate of pay called “premium overtime.”
The deal would also simplify overtime rules for better tracking.
“The way the city calculates OT and the way we pay OT is quite complicated and it’s difficult for many to understand,” Arrollado said. “This contract provides some changes to how we do that, so it’s much more effective and much more easily understood for both the city and the members.”
The mayor’s office couldn’t provide an estimate of how much the city would save from the overtime changes. A Faulconer spokesman said the overall cost of the contract, which would run through 2020, would be $30.1 million.
The staffing shortage has also been blamed for employees declining to use their earned vacation and sick time, which the city calls “accrued annual leave.”
Department employees have accumulated $19 million worth of unused vacation and sick time, which is a growing liability for the city and its taxpayers.
In addition, employees can cash out accrued leave years later when their rate of pay is higher, costing taxpayers even more.
So the new contract requires firefighters to take four consecutive shifts of vacation each year, sets firm maximum accumulation limits, prohibits accruals beyond those limits and forces firefighters with high totals to take immediate payouts each year.
Faulconer’s staff estimates the new policies would reduce city liability for accrued leave by $8 million by 2020.