Letter to the editor: No end to unfair pay, retirement for federal firefighters

(Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Getty Images) Members of the U.S. Forest Service clear brush at the Colby Fire on a hillside above Highway 39 on January 17, 2014 in Azusa, California.

Hello everyone. What follows below is a letter to the editor discussing federal firefighter pay and retirement. Under the current system, federal firefighters work 53 hours a week to earn the same as other federal workers in the grade scale system. In addition, firefighters work an additional 38 hours of overtime a pay period, which does not count toward retirement and with only a fraction more pay.

The letter below spells out the reader’s concerns in full, and feel free to add your thoughts, opinions or comments below.

Dear Federal Times,

I am a retired federal firefighter, and have been for just over 10 years.  During my time as a federal firefighter I was one of the very few to try and understand our pay system – and it was one complicated mess.

Until about 2002 our pay was actually in three parts.  The first was pay we received for our first 80 hours in a pay period (we worked 144 hours in a pay period), and our pay was exactly the same GS rate that every other GS employee earned.  Then, thanks to a law passed in 1954, we received 25 percent premium pay for working “nights, weekends and holidays” and, for some reason known only to the then, Civil Service Commission, we earned this “25 percent” for the next 64 hours.  NOT, mind you, in addition to the hourly rate we earned dur

ing the first 80, but just “25 percent”.   Thus, if our hourly rate was $10.00 an hour for the first 80, we earned just $2.50 an hour for the next 64 hours of our 144 hour pay

period (and remember that the hours we worked over 80 were MANDATORY hours.

Then, in 1976, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act and it included “overtime” for Federal firefighters, but it also mandated that our “regular hours” were actually 106 in a two week pay period.  The Office of Personnel Management stepped in and determined that we had already earned “time” for all 144 hours and added our pay together ($10.00 an hour x 80 = $800.00 and $2.50 x 64 = $160.  $800 + 160 = $960.00 /144 =$6.67 an hour) and our average hourly rate dropped from $10.00 an hour to $6.67 an hour…and we were only entitled to 1/2 of that ($3.33) as our “overtime rate” for our last 38 hours in the 144 hour pay period.

Therefore a Firefighter earning $10.00 an hour would receive $800.00 + $160.00 (25% Premium Pay) + $126.67 overtime for the last 38 hours for “overtime”.  Please note that this is how our pay was calculated and it was so complicated that many of our Payroll offices never understood it.

THEN Congress decided, in 1998, to “fix” this mess.  The law they concocted eliminated the 25 percent Premium Pay and took the same annual salary earned by every GS employee, that is divided by 2087 to determine the employee’s “hourly rate” and decided to divide that SAME annual salary by 2756 for Federal firefighters (because, after all, there was a law that decided that our work week is 53 hours and NOT 40 as it is for all other GS employees, and this is how Federal firefighters are paid to this very day.

Therefore, if a GS annual salary is, for example, $20,000.  It is divided by 2087 to arrive at $9.58 an hour for the 40 hour GS employee, but it is divided by 2756 (53 hours x 52 weeks = 2756) and the Federal Firefighter earns $7.26 an hour.

Therefore, a Federal firefighter works 2756 hours to earn exactly the same annual salary that a regular GS employee earns working just 2087 hours.  In other words, the Federal Firefighter is at work an extra 669 hours to earn what the GS employee earns NOT working those extra hours.

Further, the overtime earned by the Federal Firefighter is still earned for the last 38 hours of the 144 hours he or she is at work.  That overtime rate is (base on the $7.26 hourly rate) is $10.89, or $1.31 more that the regular hourly rate for the regular GS employee.

Somehow someone somewhere thought this was “fair” and it’s been how Federal Firefighters have been paid for well over 12 years.  AND, to make matters worse, the 64 hours we are REQUIRED to work every 2 weeks in addition to the 80 hours every Federal employee also works, in not counted toward our retirement.  NOT ONE CENT of the MANDATORY overtime we work is factored into our retirements.

Further, several studies over the last 30 years, have determined that Federal Firefighters have an “average life span” to age 57.  I personally have know at least 7 federal firefighters who died before they were 50.

Now, there is a reason I am writing this.  Retired Federal firefighters worked at rates normally between GS-5 to GS-12, and retirements we earned are nowhere near at a “living wage”.  Not only is our income reduced by nearly 1/2 without our overtime factored into our retirements, our “high 3” usually forces another reduction in our retirement income.

We have widows of retired Federal Firefighters struggling to survive because their spousal annuity is even further reduced.  One I know lost her home two years ago and another is struggling to keep hers as I write this.

Now I know that over the years Congress provided a pay increase to Federal employees based upon the cost of living throughout the United States but, again, this didn’t apply to most retired Federal Firefighters, further crippling their ability to survive on their retirement annuities.

I’d really like to know how our Congressional Representatives could allow this to happen to Federal Firefighters and, more to the point, how could our UNIONS allow this to happen to us and the then take “credit” for a pay change that didn’t fix anything but to make our being screwed “less complicated”, and then simply allowed us to retire with annuities that force most of us to find additional jobs that some of us work in until our mid 70’s.  I thought our civil service retirement was supposed guarantee us a “living wage” in retirement.  No such thing yet exists for us.

I’m sure this letter will generate excuses by the parties that spearheaded the changes made in 1998 that were supposed to “fix” our pay issues.  I have heard them for decades.  NOW I want to hear how unions (ANY union for that matter) proposes to come up with a retirement system for us that counts our overtime hours into our annuities, and provides retirement calculations that aren’t based upon an artificially lowered regular hourly rate or an overtime base upon that lowered hourly rate, and don’t bother writing a “rebuttal” unless you can also provide what you are doing to fix this for us.  We’ve all heard the nonsense before.

All this change did was to guarantee Federal Firefighters to be the butt of insults and worse from other (municipal, state and county) firefighters who see us as insane to have worked in a career where we were called upon to save lives of those earning far more than we were while they could run from the fire.  We had to stand and fight the fire and now we deserve to be paid an annuity that can actually allow us to retire.

Some us know we got screwed.  Others will soon.


Mark D. Hutchings


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  1. I have a couple of clarifying questions…first is that I don’t believe that the “average lifespan of a federal fighter is 57 years old” is an accurate statement. I believe the author is referring to the mandatory retirement age which Federal LEO’s are also included in. I believe this age was determined as the average age that an employee could no longer perform their duties due to age (which is a whole different debate that can be fueled).

    I think an important question that needs to be asked is first, are these numbers fact and second what was the intent of the laws that were passed. Was the 25% pay similar to an “on call” pay, taking into account the time that firefighters are normally in their bunks or allowed downtime. Firefighters typically work 24 hours shifts and much of this time is in a non-work status. This is not a knock on Firefighters, but if congress passed the law with the idea that 13 hours a week are typically in a non pay status, that makes more sense (fair or not is a different story and could put it in perspective).

    Also, I thought that Federal Firefighters were in typically in special pay scales similar to many Law Enforcement Officers. Maybe this is not the case, but again could be a difference where if a GS5 federal employees annual salary is different that a GS5 firefighter.

  2. Stephen Schooley on

    Your on the right track.
    All wages paid should be included in retirement benifit percentage period. You can thank the attorney Sandy Cote.
    I was quoted in the Federal Times when the Firefighter pay equity act was about to be passed. Nurmous people just wanted a little more.
    Then the Chiefs all got there increase, pretty handsome I might add.
    Retired nine years, alive and well.

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