UPDATE: City responds to firefighters’ protest over salary issues

Published 8:05 pm Monday, July 25, 2022

Members of the Firefighters Local Union 561 picketed at the intersection of Ryan and Pujo streets Monday morning. The goal was to make other Lake Charles residents aware of their starting pay — which is lower than surrounding communities — and garner public support.

Starting pay is $11.17 per hour, according to Jared Chandler, LCFD firefighter and union president. Some of the firefighters who picketed said that working overtime and the 24-hour shift is leading to burnout. Trained firefighters in whom the city has already invested are leaving to seek employment elsewhere.

Lake City Administrator John Cardone said the starting wage “isn’t the full picture of the starting pay for a fireman.”

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Andrew Lee has been with the department for seven years. He said firefighters in Moss Bluff, Sulphur, Carlyss and Westlake earn more than Lake Charles Fire Department employees.

The American Press recently reported on a significant Jennings Fire Department and Police Department pay raise. Chandler said the raise would put those firefighters at $15 per hour starting pay. The starting salary for Beaumont firefighters, according to the fire.beaumonttexs.gov recruitment page, is $4,496 per month paid bi-weekly and $5,073 after one year of service.

“Lafayette got raises years ago,” said Chandler. “I use that example because that’s what the city used in the past for comparison by Lake Charles city officials. “They start at $12.83 and after the first year, they make $15.35.”

Lake Charles firefighters respond to property fires, vehicle accidents and extrication, hazardous chemical spills, medical emergencies and flood rescue. They respond to calls inside the city limits and assist departments outside the city limits, including calls to Cameron Parish.

Physical training is rigorous.

George Green, 40-year firefighting veteran said he has seen a significant increase in responding to vehicle accidents because of cell phones.

The city has 133 fire fighters now. A full roster would be 182. The Lake Charles firefighters who picketed said burn out is prevalent, but working overtime is necessary to receive a “living wage.”

Cardone said if firefighters are working an excessive amount of overtime, they are volunteering to do so because the Lake Charles Fire Chief recently responded to the issue with an app that allows firefighters to sign up for additional overtime.

Cardone — who spoke alongside Lake Charles Fire Chief Delton Carter — said he wished all city employees, not just public safety employees such as the fire department and police force, could be paid more.

He said the city council approved a three percent pay increase, not including the two percent longevity increase for all city workers who qualify starting next year, another 2 percent raise for 2024 and for 2025, in addition to longevity.

“Employees know they’re going to receive a 13 percent pay increase over the next three years, Cardone said. “We asked them ­—to help with recruiting — to come to work now at this salary. They know they will get this amount of pay increase over the next three years. We did this without passing a tax and within the existing budget because we think it was needed.”

Chandler handed out information during the demonstration that compared the pay of LCFD and LCPD.  The two percent longevity doesn’t kick in until an employee has worked for 20 years for the fire department. Longevity kicks in for a police officer after 25 years. The LCPD hourly wage is $18 and the department offers a $15,000 hiring incentive. The fire department has no hiring incentive.

Cardone said the starting annual pay for Lake Charles firemen is $39,400. The city pays firemen a $6,000 supplement the first year. The second year, the city drops this amount and the state picks it up. Firefighters work a 24-hour shift, 2,912 hours a year. Drivers, captains and firefighters first class make more than the entry level firefighter, according to Cardone.

“The shift has built in overtime,” Cardone said. “The cycle we (firefighters) work is a 21 day cycle. Within that cycle, they work 168 hours. It really works out to 30 days. Typically in that 30-day period, because of the 24-hour shift, a fireman is off, I think around 16 to 18 days during the month.”

The average annual pay for firefighters with zero to three years experience was $53,295 in 2020. In 2021, the average was $62,763. Firefighter first class averaged $62,763 and $68,098. These figures represent income before taxes are deducted.

Cardone said the city is looking at a pay matrix for the department. A salary pay matrix is a table that defines ranges of pay on grade level and other attributes. Chandler said a matrix has been established for the police department, but not the fire department. Cardone said it’s a process. In addition to looking at establishing a pay matrix, Cardone said that maybe the 24-hour shift would be considered. Some firemen like it. Some may not.

“If there are some things in a shift that make more sense and there is a saving in the shift and we can take that and put it in the pay, we want to help the fireman. We want to do more and we’re going to look at that and see what can be done. There may not be a savings. What we do know is, most of the other cities that we looked at quite a few years back, our shift was a little unique. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m just saying we owe it to the men and women to look at it.”