Saturday, February 20, 2010

Caveat Lectores on the $100K Ceiling

Those who have been reading Caveat Lectores for the past eleven months have read my rants about budget cuts and hard times in the public sector. Frankly, I have been warning my clients, friends, labor buddies and others who would listen about the how things would become ugly in public service for over twenty years. My timing was off the mark.

When I left active fire service work in 1990, I could see that we were about to enter some good times. I also knew that things would not remain that way for long, and I suggested to my brothers and sisters that they should not count on prosperity forever.

My prediction that there would be a five to ten year run of good fortune was not correct. An overheated economy that lasted for an incredible amount of time coupled with the afterglow of the 9/11 tragedy kept public safety in the forefront. State and local tax revenues were very healthy, and politicians and municipal managers could not deny it. Even general employees prospered from 9/11 by tagging along but to a lesser degree.

I recall that a wizened fire union leader made the statement that one day soon a firefighter would be making $100k per year and all hell would break loose. He was so right. But we must remember certain facts that are not frequently part of the public media analysis.

• “Firefighter” is a generic term used to refer to nearly every fire/rescue employees from rookie trainee to a fire chief. Along the way are lots of reasons why one firefighter might make more than another. Most have to do with job responsibilities, training and certifications for which firefighters are correctly compensated.
• Overtime has become a big part of the paycheck for firefighters because the basic work week is 56 hours, equating to hourly rates that are lower than the salaries of private sector employees. They are not paid overtime until they work 53 hours instead of 40 like most other employees.
• Firefighters only work overtime because they are directed to do so. It is not a prize in the lottery. Properly staffing of departments will reduce overtime to a minimum but that costs money as well. It is cheaper to pay the overtime then blame it on the employee because he/she made too much money.
• Increased cost of living has inflated the wages of all workers to make it seem like they are making outrageous sums when they have merely been treading water trying to keep from drowning in bad economic times.

I think I recall making about $38 k as a senior fire officer with no overtime when I left active duty in 1990. Since that time, the inflation rate would require me to make about $67 k to have just maintained the same buying power.
So, who belongs to the $100K Club? The majority of high salaries go to top level management - not ordinary working folks like firefighters, police officers, nurses or teachers or other hourly workers who work very hard for their public sector employer.

And oh Yes, Have a nice Day?


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