As Napa’s deadly wildfires have subsided, newspapers and politicians are asking an interesting question in an indelicate way. How come the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, relies so heavily on thousands of prison inmates to battle the blazes alongside well-paid professional firefighters? Many observers have even used the term “slave labor” to describe the inmates, who earn only a few bucks a day.

The simple answer is, well, rather simple. State officials told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the prison-labor program “can reduce state firefighting costs up to $100 million a year.” The inmates, who dig fire lines, do grading and a lot of really tough manual labor, earn $2 a day plus $1 an hour, which is well below the state’s minimum wage. They do it to gain skills, reduce their prison time and earn what that official calls “lavish pay by prison standards.”

It’s perfectly understandable to use prison laborers to reduce hard-pressed state budgets, and it’s not surprising that many inmates would volunteer to work rather than be cooped up in a cell, even if the state gives them little pay. But a more complex analysis of the situation highlights the cockamamie nature of state firefighter compensation levels – something that has far more to do with political wrangling and union influence than market factors.

State officials like to downplay the compensation levels of Cal Fire firefighters. For instance, Cal Fire told the Union-Tribune that its firefighters “make at least $10.50 an hour.” In an article about hefty pay increases the state approved this year for Cal Fire employees, a union president emphasized that low minimum wage, noting that “two years ago our (entry-level firefighters) were making $8 an hour.”

It is indeed true that seasonal firefighters receive the entry level minimum-wage pay. But the median compensation package—including base pay, special pay, overtime and benefits—for fulltime Cal Fire firefighters of all categories is more than $148,000 a year, according to data crunched by the California Policy Center. The Bee notes that the typical battalion chief earns $15,800 in total compensation per month. The ranks of Cal Fire employees are filled with total compensation levels in the $200,000 to $300,000 range per year.

But what about the minimum-wage workers?

Around 1,500 of those seasonal firefighters earn in the $27,713 range for up to nine months of work, which would put them in that low-wage category. But those workers also receive an average of $11,410 a year in overtime, and an average of $15,676 a year in “other” pay, such as hazard pay. Then that low-wage employee receives an average of $26,848 in pension and other benefits for a total compensation package of $81,646, according to data from Robert Fellner of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Cal Fire employees are beginning to receive massive pay increases, ranging from 8.5 percent for those $189,600 per-year battalion chiefs to 22.3 percent for low-ranking firefighter/paramedics. But, as the Bee further explained, state firefighters “are paid with a complicated formula that mixes fairly low standard wages with higher pay for extended duty.” That makes it easier for officials to mask the size of the overall compensation packages.

For instance, the California Policy Center’s data show that a Cal Fire firefighter earns a median base salary of only $52,368, but that employee receives nearly $50,000 a year more in overtime and special pay. The system is designed to maximize those other pay categories – so there is nothing unusual about them. They are regular features of the firefighter’s paycheck. The remainder of the $148,857 is made up in benefits, including an extremely generous defined-benefit pension plan.

By the way, those numbers don’t include the “unfunded” portion of the retirement benefits – i.e., the amount promised but not budgeted. These pension and retiree medical liabilities ultimately must be covered by California taxpayers.

Despite these high dollar amounts, Cal Fire is still a model of frugality compared to county and city fire departments. The Bee explained that a 2014 survey found that base wage rates at Cal Fire are 89 percent lower than at county and city fire departments. Part of that has to do with the above-mentioned way that the agency pays its employees, but Cal Fire firefighters also receive much lower total compensation levels.

California Policy Center data show that the average compensation package for county firefighters is more than $196,000 and for city firefighters is above $198,000, or $50,000 a year more in average total compensation than those at Cal Fire. That’s ironic, given that state firefighters have, arguably, a much tougher job than the locals, given that they are focused on wildfires, whereas only 8 percent of local fire calls are fire related. They mostly are for paramedic services.

So the pay disparity has little to do with the nature of the actual work. And it has little to do with recruitment, given that there is an excess of applicants for well-paid firefighting positions, whether they come at the state or local level. (Indeed, approximately 70 percent of firefighters nationwide are volunteers, showing that many people will do this work for free. Even in California, the volunteer percentage is nearly 30 percent.)

The reason for the differential between the state and locals is political. Firefighter unions have inordinate power at the local level, where they are able to help elect council members and county supervisors. Local officials are fearful of being perceived as anti-public-safety, and few other groups have the funding and muscle of firefighters and police unions.

Firefighters are powerful in the state Capitol, also, but the state budget is more of a free-for-all. Public safety has to contend with myriad other powerful interest groups, such as teachers and prison guards and social-services lobbies. Fire does well, but not as well as it does at the local level.

By contrast, state prison inmates (as opposed to the Corrections Department and the prison guards’ union) have little power, so they can easily be given a few bucks to be on the front lines of some of California’s fires. This cheap labor—even if you don’t agree that it’s “slave labor”—helps prop up the unusually high rates of pay at state and local firefighting departments by enabling so much of the firefighting work to be done virtually for free. (Local firefighters pitch in at wildfires and are paid at local rates, although their departments are reimbursed for some of the work.)

A variety of voices have argued that the situation isn’t fair for inmates. Whether one agrees or not, it’s not a sensible way to allocate scarce firefighting resources. Local officials complained that there were insufficient firefighters to handle the recent raging wildfires. But if pay rates were more reflective of supply and demand, rather than union power, there would be more money to hire the right number of firefighters – and to pay hardworking inmates a more reasonable rate of pay.

Image by Sheila Fitzgerald


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