The City of Asheville has made it a goal to pay all employees a living wage of $15 an hour, with this change going into effect in the last year. The change has brought hourly pay to the $15 level for all employees with the exception of 77 firefighters, some of whom make as little as $11.65 an hour. The rationale for this disparity is the face that Asheville Firefighters work more hours than other employees. If elected, will you support and pledge to work towards a budget that truly gives all City employees $15 an hour?
As I understand it, the $11.65/hr is calculated using the 40 hour work week plus the 16 additional hours firefighters spend on call and overnight. And that firefighters are earning $15 an hour for the 40 hour work week, or $31,200/yr but not compensated for the additional 16 hours. This is a unique pay schedule to the Asheville Fire Department and is really a question of whether we should pay for the overnights and on call time. Additionally, living wage is $1.50 less an hour if health insurance is provided. Paying for every hour, or 56 hours/wk x $13.50 x 52 weeks = $39,312. The difference is $8,112 a year per person (26% increase). Wage compression is also a factor, with the nearest tenured wage at $15.02. If I recall correctly, it was an estimated additional $400k to raise other wages and alleviate compression.
My answer is yes, I pledge to work towards better pay for our firefighters. I want Asheville to pay all of its workers a living wage that allows them to do more than meet their basic survival needs. Even at $43,680, that is below the median wage for Asheville ($47,803, U.S. Census). This is a multi-faceted issue that includes wages and housing shortages and needs multi-faceted solutions and a broader plan. Our compensation study will help us better understand our shortfalls.
It is also important to note that we are talking about $15.00 an hour and the 2020 living wage is now $15.50. Additionally, living wage is $14.00 an hour if health insurance is provided, a value of $1.50/hour. With quickly accelerating living wage levels (up 10.7% in 2020 on top of 15.2% in 2019), we need to evaluate if city budgets are able to keep up, and if not, what does that mean for our wage floor and city wide living wage policy. It also points directly to housing initiatives and our need to accelerate building housing across many income levels. Living wages are determined using FMR - fair market rents - or rental costs; the higher the rent, the higher the living wage. Asheville needs thousands of housing units to reach a healthy vacancy rate, at which point rental costs should stabilize and come down.
The City of Asheville has a specific pay plan in place for the Asheville Fire Department, which lays out step raises that are to be given annually to keep wages at market value and competitive with other departments in our region. For the last 4 years this pay plan has not been followed, with Asheville Firefighters only receiving the same cost of living adjustment that all other COA employees have received. If elected, will you ensure that the COA adheres to the pay plan that Council has adopted for the Asheville Firefighters?
At the time of this questionnaire, the compensation study for all COA employees is not yet complete or available. I value the intent of this question and support implementing wages throughout the city that align with similar sized cities and departments in NC. I understand NC is 47th in firefighter pay in the nation and that we fall behind similar cities within NC; we must do better. If we have been unable to meet this step plan for firefighters as written, we need to revisit it and be realistic with what we can do to work towards better pay. Workers need to be able to depend on what we lay out for them. The compensation study may find this is true across many departments.
Asheville Firefighters continue to be paid comparatively less than our counterparts in public safety at the APD. If elected, will you support parity in pay for all public safety employees?
Yes/And... As we reimagine policing, public safety, and community support and assistance models, we need to look at how each department is providing various services and how all workers are paid. I would also like to hear from the Asheville Fire Department about ways we can improve public safety with their help and what systems can be improved to help allocate greater funds to personnel. I.e. is the Asheville Fire Department being called into remote county areas because the county doesn't not have services in those areas? Can that be addressed through other regional solutions?
Asheville Firefighters work on a 28 day pay cycle, whereas all other COA employees work on a 14 day pay cycle. This difference in parity causes undue complication to payroll. This longer pay cycle also makes the Asheville Fire Department employees far more susceptible to losing half time earned by working overtime, as this is nullified by use of sick time or vacation time during the pay cycle. If elected, would you support parity by placing all Asheville employees on the same pay cycle?
My understanding is this pay schedule pertains to overtime only; firefighter’s regular wages are paid biweekly with the rest of city staff. Federal law guides/restricts how firefighters calculate and receive overtime. I am supportive of change on a federal level, including holiday pay. In 2020, we paid Asheville firefighters $1,555,639 in overtime.
Asheville Firefighters greatly values the protection that we hold under Asheville’s Civil Service law. The protections are essential not just for the employee, but for the supervisor and the Asheville citizens as well, as the system that is in place ensures that there is a fair process to handle workplace grievances. If elected, will you work to protect Asheville’s Civil Service protections for workers and the residents?
Yes/And…. This question leaves out some crucial info and community process. Our Civil Service Board, one of only 6 left in the state, is also tied to the reimagining of our public safety; they provide services for APD and Asheville Fire Department. As we reimagine public safety, we will open up Civil Service Board rules and processes. An example is, if a police officer is fired, the Civil Service Board can decide to reinstate the officer. I support fair processes for handling workplace grievances for both forces; we need to be sure we understand how reimagining public safety is impacted by this board.
Since 1984, per chapter 143 of the NC Gen Statute, APD officers have enjoyed a supplemental retirement benefit known as the Special Separation Allowance. The City of Gastonia, Kannapolis, and Mebane provide Special Separation Allowance for their fire fighters. If elected, would you support providing Asheville Firefighters Special Separation Allowance, the same benefit that the COA provides APD?
State legislation awarded police departments this benefit; currently no other COA departments have this benefit. I’d like to learn more about these NC cities and how they were able to fund the initiatives. This is one of the many pieces that we need to consider as we work to improve the wages, healthcare, and retirement for our first responders. Historically, Asheville Fire Department opted out of paying into the social security system. Paychecks are larger but they won’t qualify for those benefits later in life and this frames retirement planning differently.
For additional background, the Special Separation Allowance is proposed within the Parity for First Responders Bill, which is a state level decision. House Bill 278 and Senate Bill 179 (March 2019) outline the proposal. To date, the cost has been too big for cities to take on. A larger, statewide effort for reform is needed.
The NC League of Municipalities is an anti-labor organization that uses dues money to pay lobbyists to fight against NC workers. The COA pays $.50 per resident annually to this org. If elected, will you remain in this anti-worker organization?
I’ve not heard the NCLM framed in this way before; I would like to hear more about this perspective of being anti-labor. The NC League of Municipalities is the only unified voice that cities in NC have at this time. It’s 540 towns and cities, a coalition of cities working together for better cities and legislation. What would we be risking without this coalition? In Asheville, it has meant personnel, water rights, short term rentals, and utilities, to name a few. Perhaps a better idea is to change their mind on the issue at hand (which is?) and not abandon the League.