In writing about the city of Los Angeles' growing budget crisis in his Feb. 13 Op-Ed column, Tim Rutten expresses concern for "employees who aren't police officers or firefighters" and the fact that the mayor may choose to lay off many of them in the months ahead. Rutten rightly acknowledges the sacrifices these working people have already made, pointing out that mandatory furloughs will reduce their take-home pay by "at least 5%" this year. He calls on police and fire unions to "step up and take an equitable share in the sacrifice," continuing, "That's doubly true given the mayor's firm commitment to maintaining both the police and fire staffs at their current levels."
We firefighters certainly share Rutten's concern regarding the possibility of layoffs in the city's workforce. Throughout this budget crisis, we've shown our willingness to "share the sacrifice" for the purpose of preserving jobs and services in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, in their haste to address the budget crisis, our elected officials compromised public safety and harmed innocent people by forcing firefighters to take deep cuts. Here are the facts:
The mayor cut Los Angeles Fire Department staffing almost as soon as the magnitude of the budget crisis became apparent. On Aug. 6, Villaraigosa ordered the daily closure of 28 fire companies, ambulances, paramedic supervisors and command teams throughout the city -- a full 10% of the LAFD's emergency response units.
The result has been twofold: First, closing companies constitutes an hours reduction for firefighters, similar to furloughs for civilian workers. Our reduction has been proportionally larger though, and it will have the effect of slashing firefighter take-home pay by a full 10% this fiscal year. Second, there have been at least two deaths in neighborhoods where the nearest fire company was closed. In both instances, this newspaper reported (here and here) that delayed LAFD responses may have contributed to the deaths.
Since July 1, LAFD firefighters have been working without a contract. In the interim, the city has come to terms with nearly every other union. We firefighters have offered to accept the provisions of any of these new contracts, but to no avail. A few months ago, the mayor and his team declared impasse against us and a third party was brought in to break the deadlock. The arbiter heard the facts and recommended a compromise that would further reduce firefighter take-home pay this year by 3% to 4% (on top of the 10% already lost); we've said that we'll abide by the decision. The mayor, however, won't. He wants more from us, and he plans to impose a contract by force.
We firefighters hope that other city leaders will intervene on our behalf. Even with the compromise, our pay cut this year will be more than twice that of any other group of city workers and three times that of police officers. In the meantime, I'll forgive Rutten for his misrepresentations regarding firefighters and the budget crisis; he was, after all, only repeating what the mayor has already said.
Pat McOsker is president of United Firefighters Local 112.