As a cub reporter back in the Stone Age, the first time I covered teacher strike talks a union official decried the “paltry” salaries the school district paid new instructors–with nary a hint over how much more they earned than I did. This has been repeated throughout my career, often accompanied by the lament that [insert public employee] could make so much more in the private sector. But I don't think Orange County firefighters could say that with a straight face if they're earning $234,000 in total compensation annually.
That's the amount arrived at by Ed Ring, executive director of the California Public Policy Center, in a Union Watch post. To clarify that's “watch” as in watchdog not watch as in let's watch the cool things public employee unions do. Other Union Watch contributors include the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the editor of PensionTsunami.org and former Orange County Register columnist, editorial writer and “small l” libertarian waterboy Steven Greenhut.
Ring reports he:
* grabbed data on the Orange County Fire Authority's website for 2011 employee compensation;
* added together base pay, specialty pay, leave payouts, overtime, healthcare and pension contributions for full-time firefighters, apparatus engineers, captains and battalion chiefs;
* and average it all out to arrive at $234k.
The lowest total yearly average would be $211,945 for firefighters and the highest would be $294,371 for battalion chiefs. Bringing them all back together as one group, the critic discovered 47 firefighters made more than $300,000 and 594 firefighters made less than $300,000 but more than $200,000.
“It is important to emphasize that total compensation is the only proper way to measure how much someone really makes,” writes Ring, explaining that pension contributions are based on yearly salaries arrived at by how many hours the firefighter “worked,” keeping in mind work includes sleeping and eating on duty. He goes on to factor in eye-opening amounts for overtime, vacation time and sick pay these public employees can bank.
Perhaps keeping in mind how beloved these first responders are in their communities, Ring adds: “There's nothing wrong with paying firefighters more than what the market might offer based purely on their skills and work hours, because firefighters incur risks in their jobs that most jobs don't impose. And there's nothing wrong with paying more than market rates in order to attract the most capable people to fill these positions.”
But his main point is to counter this from Harold A. Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, in a Sept. 26 press release: “Most fire fighters do not get Social Security, so they completely count on the pensions they have contributed to, been promised and earned over a career. Take their pensions away or cut their pensions and you have fire fighters who risked their lives over a career to save others living in destitution, on public assistance, meaning the taxpayers have to foot that bill, too.”
Observes Ring, “it is important to counter claims that firefighters are on the brink of 'destitution,' and therefore cannot agree to anything more than token concessions with respect to their pay and benefits.”