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Pensions

A second post in answer to Dan’s comments. This one:

Ah, I see — so it’s an attempt to remove pensions in favor of something
a bit more modern. Pensions are an anachronism, and public employee
pensions are pretty much screwing the states and localities that are
holding on to them. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. As long as the
pensions aren’t just tossed out — that is, that no money is put into
the 401(k)s or 403(b)s of the public sector employees, it seems
perfectly reasonable.

Death benefits aren’t normally part of a
retirement fund — that’s what life insurance is for. Any organization
that gets rid of the pensions will no doubt need to replace the death
benefits with some form of life insurance if they want to attract and
keep their employees.

The problem here is that pensions, at least for fire personnel, I cannot speak for others, were intended as a bargain made to firefighters in lieu of pay. The problem is that the average hourly wage for a starting firefighter in Florida is somewhere around $13 an hour. It costs about 20% of payroll to supply a pension. This raises effective pay to about $15.60.Similar professions with similar education requirements get over $30 an hour.

To those out there who claim that firefighters should be treated the same as everyone else, I agree. You can eliminate pensions and go to a 401(k), OK. But what about the fact that firefighters are exempt from overtime requirements under the FLSA, and do not get overtime until they hit 56 hours of work in a week?

Now that the bill is coming due for the pensions that were promised, they don’t want to pay up, and I for one grew tired of hearing how my pay wasn’t like everyone else’s pay when it came to pension, but no one cared when it came to a firefighter working 54 hours a week for straight time.

My last employer started me at $8.23 an hour in 1997. When I retired in 2011, I was making $19.27 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, this was equal to $10.79 in 1990.  

The reason why they want to eliminate pensions is to get out of paying us the money they promised us if we agreed to pay cuts and no raises back in the late 80s and 90s. Now that they are supposed to pay up, they are refusing to do so.

and the threats and cuts to pensions is why so many of us are leaving.

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Ask for it…

Dan asked for copies of bills that eliminate death benefits for public employees in a comment to a recent post, so here it is:

HB7011 eliminates the pension plan for all employees hired after January 1, 2013. This includes death and disability benefits to cops, firefighters, and EMTs that are disabled or killed in the line of duty. From this article:

Closing the current pension plan would also end benefits such as life
insurance or death benefits if employees are hurt or killed in the line
of duty. Rainey said death benefits of a newly hired firefighter killed
in the line of duty under the 401(k) plan could offer his or her
family less than $1,000.

Here is the FOPs opposition letter to HB7011 (pdf warning)

Not only that, but the system as is requires no tax increase, but switching to a 401(k) system will force the state to contribute money to the system to fund the pensions of those already retired, which will require tax increases.

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Admissions meeting

I am flying 1,200 miles to see the admissions committee of a college, so that I can attend Physician Assistant school. I hope to get in, because I think that I am ready to move on from EMS. I still love patient care, and I enjoy what I do.

The problem is that I no longer enjoy the setting. It began when a rash of poor care by fellow paramedics was being actively covered up by my administration. It culminated in my mother being one of the patients who were shortchanged. This planted the seeds of discontent. Now I understand that no profession is immune. I have worked with plenty of nurses and doctors who screw up just as badly, and private ambulance companies are no better, been there, done that. I was willing to suffer through things, since I couldn’t see anywhere or any job where bad employees were not tolerated and protected. I sucked it up.

Until recently, when the public began jumping on the “cushy” pay for firefighters, and the “public employees are evil” bandwagon. I am tired of being spit on and underpaid. It is time to go.

That’s right- underpaid. Starting pay for a firefighter/paramedic is $13.77 an hour. After two promotions and 15 years with the same department, I make $19.23 an hour. I began working a part time second job as a paramedic in a local theme park less than six months ago, and we only perform BLS procedures. Starting pay for a medic with no experience is $16.50 an hour, and $17.50 an hour if you have two or more years of experience. The health plan is better, the hours are better, and the working conditions easier.

So, I am trying to get into school to get my master’s degree. Like me, many firefighters are leaving the profession. Out of the 100 men and women in my department, we have lost 9 in the past year:
1 now drives an ice cream delivery truck
1 left to return to college
2 have left to be nurses
2 left to be firefighters in other states
1 is now a radio DJ
2 retired, and I have no idea where they are now

I also know that one just tested for a department in Colorado, one tested in Arizona, and three have notified the department that they will be retiring between now and June. And now me. If all goes well, I will be leaving by December.

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We aren’t wanted here

The TEA party screams that government should be run like a business. Like a business, firefighters in the state of Florida get extra money if they have certifications that are above and beyond the basic certifications required for the job. For example:

Statewide, firefighters get $50 a month for having an associate’s degree that is related to their job duties, and they get $100 a month for having a bachelor’s degree. (You can only get one or the other, not both, and having more than one degree still only gets you one bonus)

Most departments pay extra for paramedics. This amount can vary from $2000 to $7500 a year, depending on your department. Since 90% of calls that fire departments answer are medical runs, this is an important incentive. Nearly every fire department in Florida requires that you be a certified EMT. Paramedics have MUCH more responsibility and work to do than their EMT counterparts.

Departments provide equipment like uniforms and PPE like safety glasses and safety shoes. Many businesses do this. The money spent on PPE is saved in reduced injury costs.

The new position? All of these incentives are “extras” that are not needed. Considering that the state recently cut the pay of all firefighters statewide 3% by forcing them to contribute to retirement plans, cut retirement benefits, and many local governments (including mine) have not only withheld pay raises for the past 6 years, but have cut hours by shutting down units to save money, and other plans to cut pay, it seems like the message is loud and clear:

WE ARE NO LONGER NEEDED OR WANTED HERE.

That is fine. I have made my decision. I am applying for Physician Assistant school this week. It was a good job while it lasted, but I cannot continue down the road that we are traveling. I went from $84,000 a year in 2008 to less than $60,000 this year. How many of you would continue to work for 25% less, if you had other options?

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My busy life

There hasn’t been much posting here, because my life has become quite busy this year. There are a number of issues that have been demanding my attention as of late. Since the first of the year:

  1. I work two jobs: Firefighter, which takes up 56 hours a week of my time, plus the 202 hours of overtime I have worked so far this year, and I also work in Health Services for a local theme park.
  2. I am currently attending college, and trying to tie up the last of this degree. I am taking 25 credit hours this semester, and finals are next week. All 8 classes are A’s thus far, with one possibly a B. I graduate magna cum laude with my fourth college degree in June.
  3. I took the GRE exam to enter a Master’s degree program next year. I spent quite a bit of time studying for that, and it paid off: 630 verbal, 780 math.
  4. I also studied for and passed the Amateur radio technician’s license.
  5. I am representing myself pro se in my mortgage foreclosure case, and in a lawsuit against my mortgage holder. I settled the lawsuit for a hefty sum, and it looks like the court will be dismissing the foreclosure case, so I get to stay in my home awhile longer.
  6. and I am a season ticket holder for the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, and I have to drive 70 miles each way to attend hockey games.

So, as you can see, blogging sometimes takes a back seat to the rest of my life. I am working to get into graduate school so that I can go do something else once they cut my pension benefits as a firefighter. I can do better than what I am getting paid. I have not had a raise in over four years, in fact I make 20% less than I did four years ago. There will be no raises in the foreseeable future, and now they are cutting pension benefits in half. No thanks. If the cuts go through, I am done. The only reason I didn’t leave years ago was that pension.

I am a hard working, intelligent employee who brings a lot to the table. I think I can do better. I will be getting my Masters of Health Science and go be a Physician’s Assistant now. More money, fewer dirtbags.

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Politics as usual

I hate to keep harping on this topic, but this is such a big change to my life at this point, I just can’t let this one go. You know how the Florida governor is claiming that he wants to cut the pensions of public employees to save money?
Then explain to me why he is giving his senior cabinet members $20K a year raises…

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I guess it is my fault for expecting you to honor your promise

Public Sector pensions have become the latest target of the Republican party. If one were to believe the right wing reports, the pensions of public employees are destroying the state budgets. That is a vast misstatement. The truth of the matter is this:
Pension contributions from state and local employers aren’t themselves blowing up budgets. They amount to 2.9 percent of state government spending on average, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College puts the figure at 3.8 percent.

The most recent Public Fund Survey by Brainard’s group showed that, on average, state and local pensions were 78.9 percent funded, with about $688 billion in unfunded promises to pensioners. The unfunded liabilities would be a problem if all state and local retirees went into retirement at once, but they won’t.

What will happen though, is if bills such as the one proposed by Florida’s TEA party governor come to pass, is that large numbers of public employees will retire on the eve of the law becoming effective. The TEA party backed governor has proposed a law that would cut retirement benefits in half for many public employees. The large numbers of employees who would retire before such a law takes effect would cause large fiscal strains on the pension funds, and would actually cause the funds to destabilize.

Of course, in making the public employees and their pensions into the scapegoat, they distract taxpayers from the real issues:
In 2010 (pdf alert), public pensions in Florida were $743 million, or 1% of the budget. Medicaid costs $20.5 billion, or 29% of the budget. Education is 52% of the budget. Free lunches for poor school kids? $800 million. The new arena that was built in Orlando for the basketball team? $480 million. With all of that, why are public pensions being blamed for breaking the budget?

Another factor that the Republicans have not considered is this: When firefighters and paramedics get too old to jump out of firetrucks and ambulances at 2 in the morning, they frequently retire, and get jobs teaching at the fire academy or in a community college as an adjunct instructor. This is where the next generation of paramedics and firefighters are made. These adjunct instructors are cheaper than hiring full time instructors, and the students benefit from the experiences and knowledge that the retired instructors bring to the classroom. Under the proposed law, retired employees would be prohibited from working in a government job once they are receiving a pension. This means that community colleges and fire academies will lose these instructors. What will THAT cost?

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Those “cushy” jobs again

I checked the old site meter and found that a person had found my blog by way of a Google search for “cushy firefighter jobs.” Looking at the results of the search, I was lead to this page, over at free republic.

Even though I have done this before, there are a few misconceptions over there that I will address right now.

1 “Firefighters make $150,000 to $175,000 a year.” This is not true (I wish it were). In my area, firefighters make anywhere from $21,000 a year, up to $90,000. This varies by where you work. Obviously, a firefighter in Bug Holler will make less than a firefighter in Miami Beach. Then again, the same is true for waiters and hairdressers.

2 “Firefighting isn’t hazardous anymore, because the combination of flame resistant materials and breathing apparatus has reduced the risks.” This is not true either. The rate of firefighter deaths per fire has remained constant, and has even begun rising in recent years. Although the equipment is better, manpower cuts and other factors (such as building construction) have conspired to make firefighting a hazardous occupation. We are still killing 100 firefighters a year, even though there are fewer fires. Nearly every firefighter I know that has more than five years on the job has been injured.

3 “Several times during a wildfire I have seen a row of half a dozen engine crews standing around collecting overtime at a staging area.” Of course. Crews get rotated in and out of fire areas while they are working at a fire. These staging areas are valuable manpower pools, ensuring that the incident commander has available personnel to handle any emergencies that come up, and also serve to give tired crews a break.

4 “Firefighter/paramedics aren’t real firefighters” This is also untrue. A firefighter/paramedic is a firefighter who is also certified as a paramedic. This means that he has completed college to become a paramedic, and has also graduated from the fire academy. This allows the fire department to offer fire AND EMS service, thus making the fire department more cost efficient.

5 “The pay is too high because firefighters don’t have much training for what they get paid.” A starting firefighter has graduated from the fire academy AND is at least an EMT. This takes about a year. As you progress, you attend more and more school, and as your education advances, so does your pay. That is pretty much how ALL jobs work. Most firefighters (at least in my area) have at least one college degree. I have degrees in Emergency medicine and Fire Science, and technical certificates in rescue diving, Incident Safety, and Company officer. I am also an instructor in numerous EMS related disciplines. There are guys in the fire service who specialize in trench rescue, machinery and vehicle extrication, chemistry, psychology, and hazardous materials rescue. The more you learn, the more you earn. Just like any other job.

6 Another person complains about overtime. Most workers get overtime at 40 hours.
Under the LAW (FSLA), firefighters get overtime when we work more than 53 hours a week. Since we work a 56 hour week, there is a small amount of overtime built in to our schedule.

The problem here is that people like to complain about our pay and benefits, without really knowing what we do, or even what it takes to be a firefighter. Sure, there are guys in my area that make good money, and I think I am one of them, because I make about $19 an hour. Then again, I have 18 years of experience, I am well educated and qualified. I supervise others. Like most jobs, you earn what you are worth, and your pay is set by the market. I have earned degrees and attended school in order to become more valuable.

When you are having that heart attack, or you are trapped in your car, a collapsed building, or a burning warehouse, who do you want to come rescue you? The lowest paid, least trained person? Or will you want the educated, experienced, motivated professional with 15 to 20 years of experience?

You will get what you pay for. If you think our job pays so well, and is so easy, why aren’t you doing it? Look at other jobs with similar experience, education, and working hours, and you will see that firefighting is right in line with them.