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Firefighters weigh in on pay raise

7/20/2014

In response to several related media stories regarding the negotiating of salaries between the Hays Firefighters Local 2119 and the city of Hays, the firefighters union would like to express it was our intention to keep negotiated items confidential as they should during this process. However, we feel the public must understand our justification for these salary increases. It is true the fire department union members have received a pay raise every year since 1989 except one, just as every other city employee has received since the city tries to treat everyone fairly.

First, we appreciate the work we do and we are proud of the department that we work for. We have helped form a department through the years that has become very professional, experienced and respected. The Hays Firefighters Local 2119 is proud to support the efforts that helped upgrade the city's ISO rating to class 3. This ranks the city of Hays Fire Department in the top 2 percent of fire departments in the state of Kansas and the top 4 percent in the nation. This is a proud accomplishment, and an accomplishment that saves businesses within the city thousands of dollars per year in insurance premiums.

We agree with the city administration that when trying to apply pay increases across several unions in the city, it is best to be fair and equitable -- especially in current economic times. The justification of a 2-percent bonus is not the issue being addressed by the firefighters union. The firefighters union is justifying the pay increase for the additional duties during the course of the last decade the fire department has taken on.

Also, we feel and expect to be paid equal to other emergency services within the city such as the police department. During the last decade, the entire scope of practice of the Hays Fire Department has changed significantly, moving to an all-hazards response. The firefighters have taken on many additional duties during these years that require more training, different levels of risk and increases in workloads. For instance, several years ago, the entire fire department became certified emergency medical technicians. This was a choice that fully utilizes our resources and expertise to protect and serve our community better. This service has increased emergency call volumes from approximately 600 calls per year before the change to approximately 2,000 a year. However, the firefighters never have received any pay adjustment, while other departments in the state offer a $10,000-plus pay adjustment, while others figure it into their base salaries. The Hays Fire Department also has taken on the responsibility of sending a lone firefighter each day to staff the airport fire station for commercial air traffic. This is a high level of responsibility that leaves a firefighter on scene alone for nearly 10 minutes until more resources arrive. This is a position that requires a high level of responsibility, training, as well as minimal levels of supervision like all other positions in the fire department.

The city continues to argue it wants to treat everyone fairly. An entry-level police officer with no experience will make approximately $16.83 per hour, working an average of 42 hours a week, while a firefighter's starting wage is $11.40 per hour, averaging 56 hours a week. This glaring difference in pay is the opposite of fair. Is it fair to make up the additional pay difference only by working more overtime that starts after working 212 hours in a 28-day cycle as required by the FLSA? To be clear, the firefighters union is satisfied with our work schedule as we understand it is the most economical and efficient way for proper staffing. This difference in pay puts police officers one "pay grade" level higher than firefighters. This is where our position stands for the reasoning of firefighter pay increases of 5 percent and a 7-percent pay increase for fire lieutenants. These pay increases are matched by moving firefighters to the same pay grades as equal positions with the police officers and comparable to other similar fire departments.

As stated earlier, the city has stated it wants to treat everyone fairly. However, during the course of this year, many non-union employees have received pay increases other than what was given to the unions simply because the current administration wanted to change their job titles. Several secretaries throughout the city were reclassified to administrative assistants, receiving pay raises ranging far more than 10 percent although their job duties did not change. Three new departments were created within the city's organization creating job position reclassifications to department directors. Also, the police department created four new positions for corporals with pay raises. This city administration contends the firefighters' raise proposals are unsustainable. However, how are the raises for these other positions sustainable which are well above what the firefighters union is asking?

The city has stated this proposed increase by the firefighters union would cost an additional $47,500. This is only an approximate 3 percent of the current fire departments budget. Also, the city administration is projecting the 2014 sales tax collection to fall nearly 2 percent, from which at this point is only half that. With this current projection of a 2-percent decrease in sales tax, the city is proposing a budget that still leaves more than $500,000 left in the general fund, which pays the employees' wages. This also is after all employees receive a 2-percent bonus for 2015. The proposed pay increase totaling approximately $47,500 is less than 10 percent of the money left over in the general fund that will then not be spent on employee salaries, but other projects that did not have enough significance to make the budget. The firefighters union feels this holds little economic impact on the remainder of the unallocated funds of the city's general fund.

Another issue the union is taking into consideration is the future uncertainty of insurance costs. It is inevitable the union members as well as every other employee for the city will have to start paying for the increase in insurance costs. While trying to prepare for our own financial future, it is a hard pill to swallow knowing that after the 2015 fiscal year ends, the union members would be taking a 2-percent pay cut when the proposed bonus ends. That's not progress, simply an illusion. So at the beginning of 2016, firefighters will be making what they made at the end of 2014. We also must take into consideration of another pay cut by having to pay for the projected increase of insurance costs for the future.

The firefighters union also would like to point out the International Association of Firefighter's, of which the Hays Firefighters Local 2119 belongs to in Washington, is researching and putting together a pay study to show these pay issues. This pay study goes far beyond any pay study the city of Hays has done in previous years for comparisons to other fire departments in the state of Kansas, costing tens of thousands of dollars. Although the pay study is not yet complete, preliminary reports show the city of Hays firefighters are well-underpaid. Once this report is complete, the information will be shared with city administration for a fair evaluation by both parties. The firefighters union is trying to justify the position for this pay increase to help to adequately support our families. We are a proud union and part of a proud fire department. Thank you for allowing us to serve our community through one of the best professions in the world.

Hays Firefighters Local 2119 members Kirk Klein, Keith Mermis, Thomas Roy, Justin Choitz, Aaron Dome, Tim Detrixhe, Darin Myers, Greg May, Tyler Brungardt, Lucas Everett, Travis Hageman, Travis Johannes, Luke Scoby, Doug Randa, Myron Dreiling, Ross Meder, Brandon Zimmerman and Brandon Woods.

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