COMPTON — Firefighters, saying they are frustrated by months of contract negotiations and rebuffs by city negotiators, have registered a formal protest with the state and an informal one on the steps of City Hall.
Representatives of the 70-member Compton Firefighters Local 2216 marched Friday, Monday and Tuesday at City Hall to protest salaries they claim are 18% lower than those in area cities of comparable size.
They also insisted that forced overtime has reduced their effectiveness and hurt morale. Regular 24-hour shifts are routinely extended to 48 or 72 hours because of understaffing, they said.
City negotiators, however, said that when retirement benefits are considered, average salaries of Compton firefighters lag only about 13% behind the comparable cities cited by the union. Forced overtime is "the exception rather than the rule" and dictated by the uncertain nature of firefighting, said city negotiator Michael Heriot.
Firefighters, who have worked without a contract since July 1, also have formally charged the city with unfair labor practices, claiming that city negotiators have canceled at least 10 bargaining sessions and been late for others.
Fact-Finder to Be Chosen
The charge, plus a denial from the city, has been sent to the state labor conciliator's office, Heriot said. A fact-finder, agreed upon by both parties, will be chosen to hear the issue and recommend solutions, he said.
The union's first rally, on Friday, led to an hourlong meeting with city officials, and talks continued Tuesday and Wednesday. A representative of the International Assn. of Firefighters in Washington, D.C., joined the sessions this week, said Chris Hamilton, local union president.
"I'm very optimistic," said Heriot. "I don't feel that there are any items that are open than cannot be resolved. I hope to resolve this in a timely manner."
Hamilton said progress was made Tuesday on several minor issues, but that talks have been stalled for weeks on the two key issues of salary and forced overtime.
The city has offered to boost the base pay of firefighters by 12% retroactive to Jan. 1 and raise it by an additional 6% on July 1, both sides said. But that offer is contingent on the firefighters giving up holiday pay that is now 5% of base salary, they said. Firemen have no guaranteed holidays while other city employees have 14, Hamilton said.
The union has asked for a 14% increase in both this year and next and 13% in each of the following two years, Heriot said.
Union negotiators have touted figures from the California State Firefighters' Assn. that show base pay for Compton's firefighters, fire engineers and fire captains is about 18% less than in 10 other comparably sized Southern California cities. Monthly base pay in the firefighter category in Compton is $2,050, while the average for the 10 other cities is $2,491, and pay in Long Beach is $2,496.
Base firefighters' pay in the smaller neighboring cities of Santa Fe Springs, Montebello, Lynwood and Vernon is also higher than in Compton, the union said.
Problems with low pay loom larger because the Compton department is understaffed and firefighters are overworked, Hamilton has argued.
The ratio of emergency fire calls per firefighter was greater in Compton in 1984 than in all but one of the 10 cities cited by the union. (Manhattan Beach had the highest ratio.)
"The city has the position that we're not overworked, that there's no problem," Hamilton said. "But when you're forced to
be here for 48 or 72 or 96 hours, it wears on you and hurts your performance. It also puts a chip on your shoulder, because there's nothing you can do about it."
When interviewed Tuesday, Hamilton had been on duty for 120 hours, since 8 a.m. Thursday, he said. "I went on eight calls after midnight (Sunday) and had to get up the next morning and check the equipment and paramedic unit and still be sharp enough to pick up on life-threatening situations out in the field. The fatigue factor is paramount here."
The union claims that firefighters have been forced to work 48 hours in a row on 33 occasions since last July 1 and 72 consecutive hours in 48 instances during that period.
Hamilton said they have worked 96 straight hours on two other occasions and 120 hours on another, not counting Hamilton's marathon stint that ended Tuesday.
Work Demands Overtime
"Due to the nature of the work there is overtime required," Heriot responded. "I haven't seen any statistics that bear out what they say. (If it happened) that would be the exception rather than the rule."
By contract Compton firefighters are supposed to work three 24-hour shifts on alternating days and then have four straight days off, which equates to a 56-hour workweek, Hamilton said.
The city would cut down on forced overtime if it had to pay time and a half, instead of straight time, for overtime work, he said.
Compton did hire 10 new firefighters last month, but six vacancies remain, he said.