CA City, FFs Head to Binding Arbitration over Wage Dispute

With talks to reach a new deal with Santa Cruz firefighters stalled, negotiators are invoking a provision to use a neutral third party for the first time in the city's history.

Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.
Santa Cruz Fire Dept Station 1 (ca)
Santa Cruz, CA, Fire Department

SANTA CRUZ, CA—A city dispute with its firefighters’ union over wage increases may need third-party intervention to resolve.

After stalling on contract negotiations in October, negotiators have invoked a provision known as “binding arbitration” for the first time in city history, according to the city’s human resources director. Santa Cruz voters in March 1996 approved a city charter amendment mail-in ballot measure that allows firefighters to use this type of dispute resolution, with the city of Watsonville firefighters’ union following suit two years later.

Negotiators from both sides of the table said during interviews in recent days that they were “disappointed” and “not excited” that the issue had escalated to outside intercession, as they have traditionally worked well together. The major area of disagreement after a handful of meetings between July and September has been focused on the increasing rate of firefighter compensation rates planned in coming years, representatives told the Sentinel.

Sticking point

“I think, in general, we were pretty much in agreement,” city Human Resources Director Lisa Murphy said Monday. “They are slightly below the market, but their research that they did — the number they used — shows them, in their calculations, that they’re significantly below market, and we don’t agree with that, because we’ve done some further research on their numbers and have some issues.”

Santa Cruz’s International Association of Firefighters Local 1716 President Cody Muhly, on the other hand, said Santa Cruz firefighters are paid “well below mean.” The group’s existing four-year contract expired Sept. 20. Muhly said dividing comparison departments’ budget by their call volume gave a rough idea that Santa Cruz’s fire budget is 43% less than the mean.

“So, Santa Cruz is getting a really good deal. In fact, we had the second-lowest cost-per-call. What that’s indicative of is a lot of calls, few people,” Muhly, a Santa Cruz Fire Department captain, said Friday. “That’s what creates that number. The only agency we’re being compared to that had a lower cost-per-call is Watsonville. We’re working harder and getting paid less.”

The city-conducted market study for all of its labor groups, according to Murphy, showed Santa Cruz’s 53-member front-line firefighter labor group as the closest among 12 comparison cities to the mean salary rate. The study also showed that the union had the lowest rate of worker turnover, she said.

Muhly said the union is cognizant of the city’s financial struggles, which is why its negotiators are “not asking for the moon and stars.”

“We’re trying to have our personnel compensated for the workload that we have,” Muhly said, adding that the department’s annual call response volume has more than doubled in 15 years while maintaining the same staffing level.

Dollars and cents

According to Murphy, the city’s final salary proposal on the new contract included raises of 3%, 4% and 3%, respectively, over three years. Union negotiators sought increases of 3% in the first year and the addition of a new “top step” salary level once in the second year and again in the third year. Murphy said the firefighters’ step increases are equivalent to about a 6% raise for its highest earners, while for other bargaining units, the step increases are worth about a 5% raise.

According to city-provided employee compensation data, firefighters consistently are among the top-compensated Santa Cruz employees when overtime is factored in. Looking at 2018 base salaries, fire captains at $136,276 annually, were at the low end of the city’s overall top 50 highest-compensated workers. Fire engineers, at about $119,000 a year, ranked lowest among the top 100 city salaries. Firefighters, depending on their experience, generally ranged from nearly $70,000 to $111,000 a year in 2018. In addition to overtime, firefighters also are eligible for a catch-all category of specialty pay, labeled as “other” in city salary reports, adding about $24,000-$25,000 a year for fire captains, as much as $23,000 for fire engineers and up to $18,000 for firefighters.

With overtime, non-management firefighters made up 23 of the city’s 50 top-paid workers in 2018, ranging from $176,000 to nearly $263,000 total salary.

Process

A three-member panel of arbitrators is scheduled to review the last, best, final offers made by both the city and union early next month. The panel consists of one representative each from the city and union teams, plus a third state-appointed professional arbitrator. Short of a last-minute negotiated deal, the panel will need to choose one offer or the other, as written — and the decision will be final. The independent arbitrator’s fee will be split by the city and union.

The process of binding arbitration, which is seen as a step taking final decision-making out of the hands of local authorities, is typically used as a threat for negotiators to quickly settle disputes internally. No other Santa Cruz employee bargaining unit has the same provision.

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