Our View: A collective bargaining conundrum

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Our View: A collective bargaining conundrum
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Collective bargaining is a complex issue with myriad facets that vary from locality to locality and from department to department within a given city. As shown in today’s page 1 Alexandria Times story, “City and firefighters reach an accord,” ambiguities abound in what is nonetheless a needed and historic agreement.

It is indeed worth celebrating Alexandria’s second collective bargaining agreement in the last 40 years, after Virginia’s General Assembly two years ago passed a measure legalizing collective bargaining, which had been outlawed in the Commonwealth since the ’70s. It’s been well documented in these pages that Alexandria’s police and firefighters have lagged behind their regional counterparts in salary, and it’s widely understood to be a factor in hiring and keeping public safety officers.

It’s a self-defeating cycle to constantly be hiring police officers and firefighters, to get them fully trained and performing at a high level – only to lose them to another jurisdiction with a higher pay scale. Alexandria is too significant, and too affluent, to serve as any other jurisdiction’s minor league farm team.

So we applaud this agreement, which was tensely but mostly collegially negotiated, for bringing our firefighters’ pay and hours more in line with regional counterparts.

But – yes, there’s usually a “but” – this agreement is also rife with hidden implications that could escalate the cost to potentially budget-busting levels. And it’s Alexandria’s residents who are going to be paying, primarily in the form of property taxes, the bill into perpetuity.

The across-the-board salary increases for fire personnel this year, and in the next two years, are fairly straightforward. Few city residents likely begrudge those raises. It’s the accompanying reduction in hours, which starts in year three of the current agreement, that starts the cavalcade of problems.

For starters, it’s a double raise. For example, if someone makes $75,000 for working 56 hours a week, that’s an hourly wage of $25.76. If their pay is raised over a three-year period to $87,000, that’s an hourly wage of $29.88. And if their hours are simultaneously reduced to 50 in conjunction with that $87,000, then their hourly wage jumps to $33.46. That’s a 30% increase in the hourly wage over that three-year period. (Please note: These numbers are being used to illustrate the double impact of a salary increase and reduction in hours worked. They are NOT the actual salaries or raises of Alexandria’s firefighters.)

The primary unintended consequence of this reduction in hours is that additional workers are needed. And if firefighters’ hours eventually go all the way down to 42 from their current 56, then another whole battalion of firefighters would be needed to staff Alexandria’s fire stations 24/7. To go from three fully staffed battalions to four is to add 33% more firefighters to Alexandria’s ranks – all earning higher salaries for fewer hours worked.

And while a 56-hour work week sounds excessive, it’s not always as bad as it seems because firefighters are on duty 24 or even 48 hours at a time, and they’re able to make and eat meals and sleep – that’s why fire stations have bunks – in between calls. A firefighter can work 56 hours by pulling two 24-hour shifts and one 8-hour shift.

Firefighting is a dangerous and essential public service. Our quarrels with this planned reduction in hours are not in any way intended to denigrate the excellent work that our firefighters do.

But budgetary implications as serious as these have to be openly aired and debated. There is zero doubt that Alexandria’s firefighters deserved the raises they received in this collective bargaining agreement. But the fiscal impact of the looming reduction in hours isn’t a bargain.

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