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Arlington Firefighters Are Also Sounding the Alarm on Pay

Firefighters responding to smoke in the Ballston Metro station

Arlington County firefighters are sounding the alarm on a possible exodus from the department over stagnating wages.

IAFF Local 2800, which represents the county’s professional firefighters and paramedics, warned in a press release Monday that without an increase in pay or a hazard pay program, there could be “high turnover rates over the next year” in the department.

“We haven’t seen a true pay raise in years and no cost-of-living adjustments to keep pace with inflation,” Brian Lynch, president of the Arlington County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics, in the release. “With the COVID-19 epidemic causing an increase in dangerous 911 calls over the past 18 months, we are doing more extremely hazardous work — and really getting paid less.”

The union is asking the county manager for a 6% cost-of-living pay increase, the reinstitution of a hazard pay program, and one year of earned merit increases.

The news comes one week after ARLnow reported that the police department is shrinking over salaries and burnout and as Arlington County begins deliberating its 2022-23 budget, including wages for county employees.

It also comes before Arlington’s public safety unions will be able to engage in collective bargaining with the county. The County Board voted to permit such negotiations this summer, but the first collective agreements are not expected to go into effect until the 2024 fiscal year.

Lynch tells ARLnow the fire department hasn’t reached the inflection point that the police department appears to be at quite yet, but he’s concerned it could. Over the last two years, pay for firefighters and paramedics has only increased by 1%, which doesn’t keep pace with inflation and cost-of-living increases. Consumer prices have gone up by 4.4% in the region over the last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There was a short-term hazard pay program in place at the beginning of the pandemic but it only lasted ten weeks, he said, adding that the union never got an official explanation for why the program ended.

County officials didn’t tell ARLnow exactly why either, only saying that the program was “designed to mirror other neighboring jurisdictions’ public safety programs.”

Lynch says that re-instituting one now would show firefighters and paramedics that they are valued.

“[It would] be a token of respect towards the folks that are putting themselves and their families out there,” says Lynch. “We’ve always had a risk of dying, but COVID puts our families at risk.”

Without these concessions or merit increases, county firefighters could opt to go to other jurisdictions or get out of the industry altogether, he says.

“We’ve lost a few people already… and it could get worse,” Lynch said. “Historically, people never left fire departments once they got in. It’s a very competitive job and people stayed. What we’ve seen change is their willingness to go to other industries.”

While the county could fill these positions with new recruits, there’s a price to that as well. The union estimates that it costs the county more than $175,000 to train a single firefighter-paramedic.

County officials dispute the notion that firefighters are looking to leave the department. ACFD says the opposite is true, according to its data.

“The turnover rate for Arlington County Fire Department is actually trending downward over the last two calendar years,” wrote spokesman and ACFD Lt. Nate Hiner. “There are currently no indications that we expect this trend to reverse in the near future.”

Lynch said the union is making its requests now to make sure firefighters are top of mind as budget discussions for next year begin.

“We will be engaging with the county on this… but we want people to know that this is important,” he says. “Not just for us, but for the whole community.”

These requests would require County Manager Mark Schwartz to find additional money in the budget.

“We are at the very early stages of budget development and exploration for FY23,” county communications director Bryna Helfer said. “Our public engagement process will begin later this fall, and we welcome resident and stakeholder feedback throughout the process.”

Schwartz has also suggested dipping into the $46 million the county received through the American Rescue Plan Act, half of which is available for this fiscal year, could be an option.

During a recessed County Board meeting yesterday (Tuesday), Schwartz said compensation increases for county employees will be a priority. He asked the Board to set aside $3 million of ARPA funds for retention and incentives bonuses, particularly for those in the behavioral health field and in the police department, which are hemorrhaging employees.

Schwartz noted last night that some police officers have even gone over to the fire department.

Local 2800 representatives tells ARLnow that Schwartz’s proposed bonuses are a step in the right direction, but the county needs to do more.

“It will take more than one-time bonuses to keep the firefighters that Arlington families and businesses deserve and have invested so much in,” writes Richard Slusher III, vice-president of the union. “That will require permanent increases. We are happy to lend our professional expertise to work together with management to solve these problems.”

There’s optimism that the county will deliver on these requests, but time is ticking.

“We certainly wouldn’t want to be in a situation where we lost a tremendous number of people,” says Lynch. “Our business is a life-and-death business, so that can have consequences.”

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