Houston Firefighters' Settlement May Exceed $1B

April 9, 2024
Combining $650 million in back pay, salary hikes and interest from a loan, it will take decades to pay off.

Yilun Cheng, Matt Zdun

Houston Chronicle


Apr. 8—At the heart of Houston's yearslong battle with its firefighters — which recently ended in a landmark settlement — is the notion that the city's firefighter pay lags far behind that of other major Texas cities. But a detailed examination of these departments' pay packages shows the comparison is more nuanced.

The settlement is set to become the first labor contract that Houston firefighters have had since negotiations between the city and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 first broke down in 2017. Combining $650 million in back pay, salary raises of up to 34% and interest from a possible bond to finance the payments, the agreement will cost Houston taxpayers more than $1 billion and take decades to pay off, city officials estimate.

Union leaders have long pointed out the stark difference in base salaries between Houston firefighters and those in other large Texas cities. A first-year classified firefighter in Houston earns a base salary of $51,843, compared with $57,576 in San Antonio, $64,954 in Austin, $69,033 in Fort Worth and $70,314 in Dallas.

A closer look at the overall compensation structure — including weekly work hours, take-home pay, overtime and additional perks — calls into question whether Houston firefighters' pay package has been low enough to justify the massive cost the city will spend to settle the case.

While Houston firefighters are not the worst paid by every metric, they would require higher wages and more incentives to be fully competitive with their peers. A data analysis by the Houston Chronicle shows that the new contract, set to go into effect in three months, will make their salary and benefits among the best in the state.

Whitmire, a major proponent of the contract, said it fulfills a major campaign promise — and one that will ultimately assist with recruitment and retention efforts.

"We cannot recruit firefighter cadets. We cannot retain firefighters who put their lives on the line each and every day," Whitmire said in a recent City Council meeting. "I campaigned on it. I made the commitment to resolve it and quit kicking the can down the road. That's what Houstonians expect."

Houston firefighters' shorter workweek under scrutiny

The Houston Fire Department operates on a unique schedule that splits its workforce into four rotating platoons, each working 24 hours followed by three days off. The department has a standard 46.7-hour workweek, Finance Director Melissa Dubowski said. After accounting for time off, first-year Houston firefighters clocked in an average of 40 hours per week in 2023, according to City Attorney Arturo Michel.

This stands in contrast to Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio, where the firefighters are divided into three groups with a standard workweek ranging from 53 to 56 hours.

As a result, Houston's pay surpasses San Antonio's when broken down by an hourly rate. The promised $650 million in back pay in the latest agreement also effectively raised Houston firefighters' past earnings to an even higher level.

Houston firefighters are now poised to see pay hikes of 24% over the next five years, or 34% should the city find new public safety revenues.

In either case, Houston has proposed a collective first-year pay increase of 10% for its firefighters, who number around 3,700. Dubowski said the city and the union are still negotiating how the raise will be distributed to firefighters of different ranks. She presented an illustrative scenario where firefighters who are not supervisors receive a slightly higher raise of 12%, while engineers, operators and supervisory staff get more modest pay increases between 6% and 9%. This means Houston's first-year firefighters' hourly rate might exceed those in San Antonio and Austin and match that of their peers in Fort Worth starting this July.

Kelly Dowe, former finance director and chief financial officer under former Mayors Annise Parker and Sylvester Turner, pushed back on the narrative that Houston firefighters were severely underpaid and in need of significant raises.

He pointed to the three-year 18% salary increases that Turner granted firefighters in a 2021 ordinance, which he said "erodes the justification for $650 million in back pay."

"Considering the city's budget deficit, unaddressed savings in the fire department, the lack of justification for the union's demand for even greater back pay and the large future raises included in this package, it raises doubts about whether the city really would have received a less favorable outcome in arbitration," Dowe said.

Marty Lancton, president of the firefighters union, disputed Dowe's assessment, saying the law would have required Houston to provide back pay for every year since negotiations failed in 2017.

"The cost of the 18% pay raise under federal funding would have paled in comparison to what the city would have owed four years prior, with back pay and interest at all levels," he said.

City officials debate the fairness of firefighters' deal

Several City Council members also scrutinized the deal's fairness during a committee meeting last week, questioning if the city pushed hard enough for the union to make genuine compromises.

"It seems that everything that we're discussing today, the basis is the fire union put it forth," Council Member Edward Pollard said to Michel. But "what did we put forth that was conceded?"

Michel said that, above all, the city wanted a quick settlement that offered certainty. The legal team was also operating under a rushed timeline set by Whitmire, who was endorsed by the union last year and directed Michel at the start of his tenure to resolve the dispute within two months.

"What the city was looking to obtain was to put an end to this, to have it with certainty and to have a manageable cost," Michel said. "Those were the big-picture items that we believe the city obtained."

Lanction said it was "absolutely a fair settlement" for both sides.

State law requires the city to compensate uniformed officers at a level substantially equivalent to that of their counterparts in the private sector. The city argued that there was no private sector comparison for firefighters. And so the union eventually accepted a settlement based on comparisons with other cities' pay rather than seeking a private sector benchmark, which Lancton said could potentially bring the total back pay to $1.2 billion.

"We absolutely gave up a tremendous amount in order to get this done," Lancton said during a recent council committee meeting.

Cost-saving measures within Houston's fire department

A 2017 city-commissioned report suggested reverting the fire department to a three-shift system, which would reduce the need for over 800 fire personnel and have a high impact on the city's long-term fiscal health.

As the controller's office repeatedly sounded the alarm about Houston's financial challenges in the past year, city officials often highlighted how many of the report's cost-saving recommendations were never implemented and were worth revisiting.

The process of cutting one of the fire department's platoons can be done mainly through natural attrition, and 10% to 20% of these eliminated positions could be reabsorbed to fill necessary vacancies, according to the report.

Houston used to operate a three-platoon system for its firefighters similar to most other Texas metros until it shifted to a four-platoon setup in the early 1990s following the union's advocacy.

The debate around the shift structure flared up again in 2019 when Fire Chief Samuel Peña suggested moving back to a three-shift system to save costs.

Peña brought up the idea after Houston voters approved a ballot measure to grant firefighters pay parity with police officers, which would mean a significant pay increase for the fire department. But a district judge ruled the measure unconstitutional later that year, and so the administration did not have to continue pushing for proposed cost-saving policies.

At the time, the firefighters union resisted the three-shift change, which was generally viewed as a more arduous work schedule because it required more hours of labor. Lancton told City Council last week that the current 46.7-hour schedule is already a compromise because the private sector requires overtime pay after just 40 hours of work.

"What the firefighters decided to do and agreed to was instead of comparing ourselves to 40 hours, which would put the city in a far worse position on a cost-per-hour basis, we'll look at the base salaries and that we'll agree moving forward that we will compare ourselves, just like (the Houston Police Department) does, to Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin," he said.

The union has also argued that the extra overtime expenses that come with a three-shift system would negate any financial benefits. This is because of Houston's distinct situation under Texas law where its firefighters qualify for overtime pay after 46.7 hours per week, unlike the 53-hour threshold anywhere else in Texas.

This distinction has led to extra overtime costs of tens of millions of dollars per year, according to a 2023 city report. Last year, the typical full-time firefighter in Houston made approximately $8,300 in overtime pay, payroll data obtained from the city shows.

New contract to create additional bonus and incentives

Right now, Houston firefighters have less financial wiggle room than their Texas peers when examining what their take-home pay is relative to the cost of living. The initial 12% pay increase is expected to bring them into alignment with San Antonio's firefighters.

Houston also stands out as the only city among the five not offering educational incentives. The proposed contract would address this gap, introducing tuition reimbursement and additional pay for firefighters with higher education degrees.

While the Whitmire administration has not released the proposed agreement, Michel said the future educational incentives for firefighters would mirror those at the Houston Police Department.

Police officers, upon graduation from the Houston Police Academy, receive an extra $3,640 a year for a bachelor's degree, $6,240 for a master's degree and $8,840 for a doctorate degree. Similar incentives for firefighters would place Houston at the top among all major Texas cities.

Houston already pays a fairly competitive incentive for firefighters with multilingual skills, as well as a longevity bonus to help retain staff.

The city's average annual pension payout at the end of a firefighter's career — around $57,000 annually as of 2022, according to the latest available data — sits below the pension payouts of Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, which range from about $60,000 to $70,000. Fort Worth's pension payout for firefighters was not immediately available. The latest deal will likely impact the pension payouts because they are tied to firefighter salaries.

Whitmire said he is satisfied with the overall terms in the new agreement, arguing it will help boost the department's ranks and and elevate staff's low morale.

"It was a very intense process of negotiations," the mayor said. "It is long overdue to get this behind us and let the public know we're doing our job."

About the data

The Chronicle used the base salary for a firefighter in their first year after that firefighter had completed their required probation period as the basis for the calculations in this piece (or, in other words, the first pay bump post probation period).

Different cities have different probation periods. In San Antonio, firefighters complete a 12-month probation period. Their salary is $57,576 for the duration of that probation period as well as for six months after that probation period. The salary then increases at the 18-month mark and remains the same until the 60-month period. The Chronicle elected to use the $57,576 figure because that more accurately reflects a firefighter in their first year than the next pay bump, which also includes firefighters with a few years of experience.

In Fort Worth, firefighters make $65,784 at the start of their probation period, which lasts for roughly 10 months through the rest of the year. They then make $69,033 at one year from commission. The Chronicle used the $69,033 figure to capture the pay bump that a new firefighter can expect to make after the probation period.

In Austin, firefighters are paid $59,768 for the six months of their probationary period. They then make $64,954 for the next year. The $64,954 figure is the most accurate representation of what a firefighter earns in their first year post probation.

In Houston, firefighters are on probation for 12 months. After completing their probation period, they make $51,843, which is the figure the Chronicle used to represent a firefighter in their first year

In Dallas, firefighters complete an "evaluation period" for six months. They then become a fire-rescue officer and make $70,314 per year. That is the figure the Chronicle used to represent a firefighter in their first year.


(c)2024 the Houston Chronicle

Visit the Houston Chronicle at www.chron.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.