HANFORD — Hanford firefighters have been working without a new contract for over a year-and-a-half, and they are tired of being ignored by the city.
Tom McKean, president of the Hanford Firefighters Local 3898 union, said the city is trying to reduce salary and benefits for firefighters by using a bad salary study and refusing to compromise with the union.
The union represents 27 fire department personnel, including 15 firefighters, six engineers and six captains.
The firefighter’s union is the only city agency that does not have a current agreement. The firefighters continue to operate under the terms of the last contract the union and the city held.
The last contract the city and the firefighters union had ended in July 2016. McKean said the city put off meeting with the union between February and May 2016 in order for a new salary study to be completed.
McKean said the city did not meet to confer with the union to select the comparable cities, but hired Bryce Consulting to conduct a study using Porterville, Visalia, Tulare, Kings County and Madera. He said according to the new study, the personnel were overpaid in various ranks and positions.
If the union were to give in to the city, McKean said personnel would have to come at a reduced pay scale and there would be a salary reduction for all positions.
“Why would firefighters stay in Hanford when they can perform the same job with the same duties somewhere else and get paid more,” McKean said.
City Attorney Mario Zamora said the study did come back with those findings, but said it would not affect personnel who are already working in the department, only those who are newly hired.
In theory, this would create a situation where two people perform the same job, but are paid different amounts, McKean said, adding the city wants to create a system where an employee can get promoted, but doesn’t receive a raise.
Hanford firefighters have a great number of responsibilities, McKean said, including being expected to be drivers and operate all equipment within 18 months of being hired; not to mention responding to more calls per capita than other surrounding departments.
He said what the city wants to do will reduce incentive for promotion and reduce incentive to stay employed in Hanford.
“We’re competing with other cities for employees and can’t keep them because of this,” McKean said. “All we want is a competitive wage.”
McKean said the city is also trying to reduce the amount the city matches for deferred compensation by half. He said firefighters pay into the deferred compensation fund while employed and use the fund when they retire as a way to pay for health insurance until they are eligible for Medicare.
He said the city makes health insurance available to retirees, but the employee is responsible for 100 percent of expensive insurance premiums, which is why deferred compensation is important to the group. He said other bargaining groups in the city agreed to reduce the matching contribution years ago in exchange for pay raises, but firefighters chose to hold onto it.
In previous negotiations, McKean said the salary study was conducted by the city of Visalia, which gathered numbers from Visalia, Fresno, Clovis, Tulare, Bakersfield, Kern County and Porterville fire departments.
According to the last Visalia study, McKean said Hanford is trailing around 11-17 percent in average salaries, depending on rank and position.
In the study the city had conducted, some other agencies didn’t even have positions that are equivalent to Hanford’s firefighter position, resulting in “incomplete data” for that position and leaving a majority of the group without a comparison salary to measure against, McKean said.
McKean said Bryce Consulting even told the city they needed a larger sample size of comparison agencies in order to get a true representation, but the city disregarded the suggestion.
“This is all based on a bad report,” McKean said. “The study is flawed, but they’re sticking to it regardless.”
Zamora could not recall all the details of the study, but said Council picks which cities to compare and has traditionally used the same cities as comparisons for many years.
McKean said the fire department needs to have competitive wage because they don’t want to lose good people to positions in other areas. He said of the last three people who have left the department, two have gone to the Fresno Fire Department, a city that Hanford doesn’t consider to be a comparable city.
He said it’s tough for the department to keep training new people, just to have them leave for another agency.
“We keep losing quality people,” McKean said. “Morale is at an all-time low.”
Zamora said he doesn’t believe the city has a retention problem, saying only about one firefighter leaves every year. He said there are plenty of reasons for a person to leave their job, not just having an issue with their pay.
Although the union has made offers, McKean said the city has made no counter-offers and has just told the union to come back with a different offer that more closely aligns with the numbers from the Bryce study.
“The city refuses to meet with us,” McKean said. “They are refusing to schedule a meeting until the union submits another proposal.”
This is a claim Zamora refutes, saying the negotiating parties have met whenever it is requested and he takes calls from the union lawyer on a regular basis.
Right now, the union is offering a two-year contract for zero percent, meaning they are asking for no movement in salary. McKean said this is the same offer they have given three times, but the city has said no the deal.
Zamora said Council gives direction to the negotiating team and tells them exactly what they willing and not willing to compromise on.
Calls to members of Council were not returned by deadline for this article.