Overtime pay boosts income of firefighters

Average paycheck is $8,500 more than police, records show

Paramedic made $98,578

Union president defends stance in contract talks

March 30, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

While the Anne Arundel County firefighters' union pushes for the same generous contract recently awarded police officers, county payroll records show that, on average, firefighters already earn $8,500 more than their colleagues in blue.

The reason: overtime.

Firefighters averaged $10,554 of overtime last year, compared with $2,688 for police officers. As a result, the average firefighter salary totaled $49,350, nearly one-quarter more than the $40,913 earned by police officers.

Topping the list was a paramedic who earned more than $51,000 in overtime, for total compensation of $98,578 -- more than County Executive Janet S. Owens made. Her salary is $95,000.

The highest-paid police officer, by contrast, made $55,335, including $15,000 in overtime.

Firefighters acknowledge that they earn a lot of overtime but say it does not weaken their case for a significantly higher base pay.

"In order to make a decent living, someone has to spend two-thirds of their life working to make what a normal person makes on a 40-hour workweek," said Jim Edwards, president of the Anne Arundel County Firefighters Local 1563.

Fire union officials rejected last week the county's offer of a 13 percent raise over three years. The police contract includes a 17 percent raise over the same period.

Edwards has said the 470 firefighters deserve a contract equivalent to the police pact. And he has pointed out that Owens promised last year to raise pay for all public safety employees, not just the 520 police officers.

The firefighters' contract expires June 30. Police sergeants are among five other groups of county employees trying to hammer out new contracts with the county. The law forbids county employees from striking.

Unlike police officers, who work five eight-hour shifts per week, firefighters typically work 24 hours straight, followed by two days off. This means they put in 48 hours some weeks, 72 in others without overtime. Because of this schedule, they receive additional time off in addition to vacation and sick days, and as a result, a firefighter's average workweek equals 49 hours.

Edwards noted that this means a firefighter works longer to earn the same base pay as a police officer. According to county records, the average base salary for both is a little more than $38,000.

In addition, many firefighters put in frequent overtime. Most augmented their incomes by several thousand dollars last year, while nearly 60 made more than $20,000 with extra shifts. (Only one police officer eclipsed $15,000 in overtime.)

Edwards said one reason the firefighters have more overtime is staff shortages. Despite past promises that the county would hire more firefighters, he said, the county has chosen instead to rely mostly on overtime, which is cheaper.

Paying overtime does cost the county less than hiring employees, said John Hammond, county financial officer.

"When you pay overtime, you're not paying health insurance, you're not paying pension and you may get to a point where you're not paying Social Security," he said.

Health benefits cost the county more than $8,000 per firefighter, he said.

The Fire Department also has more critical shifts it must fill. According to Hammond's office, 130 firefighters must be on duty at all times, so if someone is sick, another firefighter likely will make overtime.

By comparison, the Police Department leaves certain positions vacant if the officer scheduled to work cannot be there.

Edwards acknowledged that firefighters have a certain amount of down time, including the night hours when they try to sleep at the station. But he said it is common for a half-dozen calls to be made during the overnight hours. Even when they are not responding to emergency calls, he said, firefighters must clean equipment, among other chores.

"We're not playing checkers," Edwards said.

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