Alexandria first responders call on city to increase compensation

Alexandria first responders call on city to increase compensation
(Photo/IAFF Local 2141)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City Council unanimously approved a set of mid-year pay adjustments during Tuesday’s legislative meeting, including a 1.5% pay increase for all city employees.

Originally proposed as part of the FY2021 budget prior to the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, all city employees will receive a 1.5% increase in pay, while captains and lieutenants in the police department and sheriff’s office will receive targeted step increases.

Deputy fire chiefs and chief deputy sheriffs will also move up to the executive pay scale. Due to an amendment from Mayor Justin Wilson, all full-time city employees will receive a $3,000 bonus, in line with the bonus that city-funded deputy sheriffs will be receiving. As proposed by City Manager Mark Jinks, all of this comes with the promise that council will prioritize further compensation increases in the FY2023 budget.

Council’s approval comes after months of public statements from the city’s fire and police unions calling for pay increases for employees who lag far behind their regional counterparts in compensation. Alexandria’s lower salaries have resulted in crisis-level staffing shortages and created hiring challenges in both departments. The mid-year pay adjustments approved on Tuesday fall well below what local unions have been calling for, including a 10% salary increase and $3,000 bonus for all first responders.

Members of local police and fire unions said they will continue to call on City Council to prioritize these pay adjustments during the FY2023 budget process because the current situation is untenable. Overworked police officers and firefighters in understaffed departments have led to serious concerns about first responders’ abilities to provide services that, in some cases, mean the difference between life and death.

“Right now, the way it is with that firehouse on Duke Street, I might not get a paramedic if my wife has a medical emergency,” Josh Turner, a captain in the Alexandria Fire Department’s rescue squad and president of the IAFF Local 2141 union, said. “… The other night, someone right at the end of my street got in a pretty serious car accident, and they had to wait for a rescue company from Arlington to come and help. Luckily, that person’s fine, but it’s kind of that roll of the dice.”

Competition for compensation

The retention and hiring challenges in both departments stem from compensation that lags behind that of other jurisdictions.

According to the city’s 2020 benchmark study, which compares local city employee salaries with those in other nearby localities, a firefighter class I earns, at minimum, $49,294 per year and at maximum $87,326. In Northern Virginia, the average firefighter class I earns, at minimum, $56,282 and, at maximum $89,040.

According to Jeremy McClayton, an organizer with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2141, one firefighter who has been with the city for four years, is an engine driver and is certified in water rescue, would earn more in Fairfax County’s recruit school than what they are currently paid in Alexandria. For firefighters who have only been in the city for a few years, moving to another department that will pay better right off the bat is extremely tempting.

However, for lieutenants and captains who have been with the department for 20 years or so, leaving Alexandria for another department would mean having to work back up the ranks – and pay scale – in another jurisdiction. With retirement set at 30 years and an 18-year journey to reach the top of the pay scale, most higher-ranking members of AFD are “held hostage” to the pay structure in Alexandria, according to Turner. Even in the city’s pay scale, increases are not guaranteed each year.

(Photo/Alexandria Fire Department Facebook)

“Three years ago, a 28-year member of the department who was retiring early, on his last day he was joking and he said, ‘The crazy realization was that last year, I topped out finally,’” Turner said. “That’s 10 years where he didn’t move up at all.”

Turner said part of the consideration is also the number of hours worked. Whereas most firefighters in Northern Virginia work about 42 hours per week, in Alexandria, they work closer to 56 hours per week. The Arlington and Fairfax fire departments also work long hours, although Arlington is in process of reducing work hours for its firefighters.

According to IAFF, working at this level can increase the risk of heart and lung disease, and cause sleep deprivation, depression and anxiety. Extremely long hours also raise the probability of contracting cancer in a job that already has a higher rate of cancer than the general public.

According to IAFF, per hour, the starting salary for a firefighter with advanced life support certifications is 36% below the average starting salary of neighboring jurisdictions, but that doesn’t take into account the amount of hours worked. According to the city, given the 56-hour work week over the course of a 25-year career, every Alexandria firefighter gets an extra 8.25 years of work.

“A lot [of members] will flat out say, ‘When I work here, I’m tired because I’m working a 56-hour work week,’” Turner said. “Then, because we’re so short staffed, a lot of those folks are being held over more. So, they’ll go to work for 24 hours, 7 a.m. they’ll think they’re going home and someone from the staffing office will call and say, ‘Hey, sorry you’re held over for another 12 or, in some cases, another 24 [hours].’”

In some cases, because of how AFD’s schedule works, those employees might then have to return the very next day for another 24-hour shift.

“A lot of us are reaching our breaking point. As a labor leader, you worry about their mental health, their family’s well-being and health,” Turner said. “I had a member come to me in tears one morning because she had been held over again as a paramedic and basically, she said to me, ‘My husband is going to lose his job if I have to call him and tell him he has to watch the kids again. I can’t get home [for] my scheduled day.’”

For Marcus Downey, vice president of the police’s ACOP/IUPA Local 5 union and an Alexandria Police Department patrol lieutenant, the issues around compensation are not new. Downey said compensation is a “decades old issue” that preceded his 15 years in the department.

Out of the starting salaries for 22 law enforcement agencies in Northern Virginia, including local sheriff’s departments, APD placed 21st at $50,839, according to information from the city website. Downey said the union’s push for a 10% increase would bring them close to the city’s stated goal of staying in the middle of the pack when it comes to compensation.

(Photo/Missy Schrott)

“I think a lot of people hear that and go, ‘Good god, that’s a lot of money.’ Well, anything short of that doesn’t even get you in the middle of that list,” Downey said. “You could do 5%, and on its face, that’s a lot of money to the average person. … But if you do just that or anything short of 10%, you’ll never get into that top 10 list and so you’re not going to have people apply here.”

According to City Manager Mark Jinks, whether the city will move forward with a 10% increase or not depends on the results of this year’s benchmark compensation study, which is due to arrive in mid-November, around the same time council will start its budget process.

“It depends, but if we found out that from a total annual salary point of view [salaries were] 10% low from being in the middle … then that would [indicate] this is a high priority,” Jinks said. “In effect, if it were only slightly below, then anything above that slight amount to get us to [the middle] would basically be less of a priority.”

Staffing shortages

Compensation is the core issue, but without the allure of competitive salaries, AFD and APD have struggled to retain and recruit staff as well. The end result is two departments with overworked staff that are struggling to keep up an effective level of service for their community.

According to Turner, the fire department has an incoming class of 25 people, but it is attempting to make up for a shortfall of close to 70 firefighters. At the same time, APD is short 10 officers and 13 “overhires,” positions designated by the city to fill in gaps when officers are out on leave, Downey said.

Jinks pointed out that the fire department has more budgeted positions now than it did when he became city manager in 2015: 302 in 2021 compared to 276. For Jinks, the issue comes down to the fire department’s own calculations.

As of Aug. 12, 2021, AFD’s rescue squad is no longer running its own dedicated operations, which included everything from vehicular rescue with the “jaws of life” to water rescue and even tunnel rescue, something that Turner said will become more vital as the city embarks on its large scale RiverRenew tunnel project. The squad’s staff now serve as utility players elsewhere in the department. In essence, this means that the rescue squad could still respond to a situation, but only if they are not already out on another call.

Turner recalled a storm that occurred in recent weeks that left two people stranded in their car by the Braddock Road Metro station.

“Our water rescue was not available. They were on a different unit on a fire alarm call in a different area of the city,” Turner said. “That’s the dice you’re rolling. If that unit had been staffed, they would have been able to respond.”

Turner said he supported City Council’s efforts to strengthen the city stormwater infrastructure but that with the city experiencing more intense flooding than ever before, rescue and safety resources should also be a priority.

“I’m glad that the city is fixing these issues, but the piece of it is when it takes five to 10 to 20 years to fix some of these issues and have some of these projects come to completion, during that time, that would be the time that I would think you’d make sure that your response services are the most robust they can be,” Turner said.

Additionally, AFD had to take advanced life support off of the medical unit housed in the Duke Street fire station and replace it with an ambulance with basic life support providers. The difference in service is significant, according to Turner.

BLS providers can administer CPR and advanced first aid and treat injuries, but they don’t handle many of the emergencies the department responds to. They are also not trained to the level of paramedics, who can hand out medication and perform cardiac monitor airway maneuvers and other lifesaving measures.

Representatives from the Alexandria Police Department, Alexandria Fire Department and Alexandria Sheriff’s Office during the 9/11 commemoration ceremony (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

According to Turner, ambulances staffed with BLS staff instead of ALS staff could get a call and arrive on the scene without staff who are legally allowed to perform the necessary services. Those staff would attempt to help but would then be put in the position of having to break the law to help a resident in need.

Downey said APD’s staffing issues started in earnest back in the first quarter of 2021. While Downey said that Arlington and Fairfax are dealing with similar issues, the pace at which Alexandria is losing police officers is what concerns him the most.

“For every one officer we hire, we lose three. You just can’t operate like that,” Downey said. “… Right now, we have less people on the street than we have previously as a department said we should have on the street to provide a quality level of service to the community.”

Historically, the department has always hit above its minimum staffing levels, which has allowed it to send out special details, including bike officers and radar units. Now, APD is struggling to even provide officers at special events since there are not enough officers to run calls for service, according to Downey.

Typically, if there is a staffing gap, the department would call up an off-duty officer and ask if they wanted to come in and work overtime.

“Our officers are so exhausted because they’re working shifts that are understaffed that you can’t even pay them time and a half to come in and work, whereas typically, especially because they’re underpaid, they would jump at that chance,” Downey said.

Communication breakdown

Despite the pay adjustments council passed on Tuesday, both the fire and police unions have questioned the city and city manager’s transparency in its attempts to address the issue of compensation. The public back and forth that ensued represents political and financial gamesmanship by Jinks in the eyes of union leaders, but according to Jinks is an aggressive collective bargaining tactic by the unions.

Union representatives have argued that Jinks’ proposal for the 1.5% increase was based on the 2019 benchmark compensation study when it should have been based on the 2020 study. Downey said that in order to even access the 2020 study, which is typically made available to public safety agencies every year, he had to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.

Jinks acknowledged that the increase is based off of the 2019 study, arguing that the entire proposal is an attempt to fulfill the promise laid out in the original preCOVID-19 FY2021 budget.

“As we close the book on the year, given our revenue numbers were better, our expenditures were good, I felt that we were in a financial position to be able to take action. What I thought would be a good way to start would be with the pay proposals that were in the FY21 budget that got cancelled because of COVID,” Jinks said.

According to Jinks, these pay adjustments are not the total solution to the first responders’ woes, which is why he specifically directed council to prioritize compensation in the FY2023 budget.

“I’m saying we have to go further. I just don’t know how much further,” Jinks said.

Turner and Downey both argued that the city does in fact need to go further and that it can’t continue to rely on small, steady increases in pay for firefighters and police officers, as it has done in the past.

“I think one of the things we have to realize in this community is that we can’t just keep putting small-time fixes on a big-time problem,” Turner said. “You can’t put out a fire if you’ve got a bunch of holes in your firehose.”

In response to the unions’ criticism of his proposal and methodology, Jinks said the public campaign that the unions have waged is simply a collective bargaining tactic aimed at swaying public sentiment.

“In collective bargaining, sometimes unions seek to gain public support by basically painting management in a very negative light and using rhetoric and connecting the dots in a different way than I might connect them. I think that’s part of what you’re seeing,” Jinks said.

Council passed a collective bargaining ordinance in April, and while the ordinance gives Downey some hope that these kinds of communication breakdowns can be avoided in the future, he found Jinks’ comments “offensive … because that insinuates we just started doing this four months ago when collective bargaining became a thing.”

“What they’re bringing to try to do to rectify this – even though it’s, frankly, way short and almost insulting – is simply because we’ve taken this to the public,” Downey said. “We shouldn’t have to do that, and I don’t want to. I would much rather focus on other things, but what they have shown is an unwillingness to do it without pressure.”