Premium Pay creates San Francisco Pain
The featured article in last week’s SF Weekly was Peter Jamison’s Your Money for Nothing: At a time of huge deficits, S. F. public employees get $70 million in bonuses for work that is often in their job description.
Jamison focuses on what is called “premium pay.” Bonuses available to government employees for performing certain types of work, or posessing certain certificates. Only overtime is higher, at $123.8 million.
As this graph shows, public safety represents a large chunk of the $70 million in premium pay:
SF Weekly January 26, 2011
The Fire Department accounts for $20.4 million in bonuses. According to Jamison “Eight of the top 10 most costly forms of premium pay are those involving the fire department.”
The single largest category of premium pay in San Francisco is the fire department’s training and education incentive, which grants an extra 6 percent of an employee’s salary to anyone who has an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in fire-suppression science or a “related field.”
But you don’t need to go to school to be eligible; anyone who has been with the department for at least 10 years also gets the bonus. In 2010, it accounted for $8.9 million.
The SFFD training and education incentive originally was a specific bi-weekly bonus for fire science program graduates, representing less than a 1% pay raise. The article quotes a 1999 budget analyst report to the Board of Supervisors that only 8% of the firefighters were eligible.
(In 1999), the premium was extended to those with 10 years of time in the department, putting it within reach of 70 percent of firefighters. It was simultaneously changed to the current 6 percent of a recipient’s salary. As a result, its cost to the city skyrocketed.
The 4,200+ word article provides some of the background of premium pay, a complex issue linked to the start of collective bargainng in 1993 with the 32 unions that represent city workers.
If Everybody is Required to Have It, why Premium Pay?
A negotiated labor agreement is creative and complex. There may be a pragmatic answer to providing everyone with premium pay for a certification or a work assignment.
But in these austere times, the way the item is explained creates an opportunity for education:
Premium payments to those who worked as EMTs totaled $1.2 million last year, even though all San Francisco firefighters have been required to hold EMT certification for 20 years.
Tom O’Connor, president of the city firefighters’ union (IAFF Local 798), defends the premiums, arguing that they are rewards for higher levels of training or more difficult and risky kinds of work. For instance, he says firefighters who work as EMTs on a given day expose themselves to greater liability if they make mistakes. Losing an EMT license because of missteps on the job would also mean suspension, since holding the license is a condition of employment. The other firefighters in a squad don’t run that risk when they’re not the designated EMT, he says.
O’Connor asserts that the idea of a premium for EMTs was originally introduced by the city long ago as a cost-saving mechanism. He says that by paying a premium, the fire department avoids having to establish a separate, higher-paid rank for firefighter EMTs, thus saving itself money in long-term pension and health care costs. “I understand the city is looking for every nickel and dime under the couch cushion,” he says. However, “it’s funny that they criticize it, because probably nine times out of ten they came up with the premium.” (Despite his description of the premium’s origins, O’Connor acknowledged that city negotiators now “constantly try to get rid of” the EMT payment, arguing that it is redundant with firefighter job requirements.)
EMT premium pay is 5% of the firefighter’s salary in San Francisco.
EMT certification is an added-in proficiency in city fire departments with decades of labor agreements. You need to have knowledge of the existing labor and compensation regulations to evaluate President O’Connor’s statement.
My paramedic incentive pay was never linked to retirement calculations. This means that my base pay determined the benefits package. The county would incur additional expenses if my gross pay was used instead of base pay.
We live in challenging times. For some, we are no longer the “good guys.”
For the Brothers and Sisters in San Francisco, it must seem like a never-ending challenge from one issue to the next.
Mike “FossilMedic” Ward