Oral arguments have been scheduled for late August in a Florida Supreme Court case challenging Gov. Rick Scott’s vetoes of pay raises for firefighters employed by the state.
Scott vetoed a $2,000 pay raise in 2015. The veto followed a series of events that included a bargaining impasse on a union request for $1,500 pay raises for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, according to the appeals court. The Legislature resolved the impasse by including $2,000 raises for firefighters in budget fine print known as “proviso” language, which Scott subsequently vetoed.
The International Association of Firefighters Local S-20 went to Florida's Supreme Court last summer after the First District Court of Appeal ruled Scott's veto of $2,000 raises did not violate collective-bargaining rights.
The court found Scott acted within his jurisdiction as governor to veto items from the state budget. Legislators did have the power to override the veto, but failed to do so.
This year, the state Legislature passed a one-time pay bump of $2,500, but state firefighters say they still struggle to make ends meet, and the Florida State Fire Service Association is continuing its pursuit of an increased hourly wage.
Michael Dvorack, secretary-treasurer of the Florida State Fire Service Association, said in an email, “With low pay leading to low morale, the average forestry firefighter for the state of Florida now has less than five years of experience.”
But Gov. Scott's Communications Director John Tupps said, “Governor Scott appreciates the hard work of state firefighters, which is why he has signed pay increases for firefighters into law the last three years.”
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the national average pay for state-employed firefighters is $47,330. Dvorack said the average pay for Florida Forestry firefighters is much lower.
“The starting salary is actually $24,590 a year, with most (Florida) forestry firefighters averaging $27,000 a year annually,” Dvorack said.
Because of this, firefighters may take on extra assignments, according to Randy Wyse, President of the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters.
“Our forestry firefighters will take vacation and leave time as part of management teams that actually respond across the country and go there to supplement their income,” he said. “These forestry firefighters are literally at the head of the fire, where the fire is going and are cutting lines so they can cut it off and so that it can be controlled. It is a very specialized field, very technical, but also very labor-intensive.”
And Dvorack said leaving in search of other work isn’t always temporary. He said the Florida Forestry firefighting workforce loses firefighters to states with higher-paying positions each year.
“When we only have 600 forestry firefighter positions in the state, that comes out to 13 percent of the workforce each year being lost to higher paying jobs,” Dvorack said.
He continued, “Take into consideration that the cost to train and certify one forestry firefighter averages out to $88,000. That means the state is spending upwards of $7 million a year to train firefighters who aren't staying more than five years.”
One potentially attractive destination could be California, which gives its state fire fighters mandatory overtime pay, something Florida does not.
In Florida, forestry firefighters receive compensatory pay rather than overtime. This means firefighters must take off the extra time unless there’s a declared state of emergency, Dvorack said, “just one of the many problems that forestry firefighters working in Florida face.”
The Florida Supreme Court hearing is scheduled for August 29.
Corrected: This story originally said Scott vetoed a $1,500 pay raise in 2015, but the veto was of a $2,000 pay raise. This story originally said the Florida Professional Firefighters Union is pursuing a pay increase, but the union representing forestry firefighters is actually the Florida State Fire Service Association. This story originally said Florida Forestry firefighters make about $5,000 less than the national median; their actual salary is about $25,000 less than the median. This story originally stated California pays about $10 more hourly than Florida does, but that is not the case. We regret the errors.