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Sharing Benefits and Perks

Sharing Benefits and Perks

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Boston Globe via YellowBrix

July 16, 2010

Quincy firefighters get a 10 percent boost in pay if they earn a master’s degree in business administration. Plymouth firefighters can trade a week of vacation for a week of pay. And Norwell firefighters can work out — situps and pushups, for instance — only if the exercise doesn’t exhaust them so much that they can’t work.

The benefits, and quirks, of local firefighter contracts have attracted increased attention since Boston firefighters fought bitterly and publicly with the city over their latest contract, which included extra pay for alcohol and drug testing.

Locally, the big numbers from the contracts, such as the percentage increases in pay, often become the focus of public attention. The items tucked away in the fine print generally do not receive nearly the same level of public scrutiny.

But those details can add thousands of dollars to a firefighter’s annual income. And many firefighters also have unusual work schedules, such as 24-hour shifts, which allow them to hold second jobs more easily.

Globe South reviewed contracts from eight communities — Dedham, Hingham, Milton, Norwell, Plymouth, Quincy, Scituate, and Walpole. While details varied greatly, the contracts followed roughly the same patterns, from major items to minor.

For instance:

■ Base pay tended to be in the low $50,000 range for experienced firefighters, much lower than experienced Boston firefighters, who earn about $80,000.

■ Education stipend: Most automatically get extra money for earning class credits or degrees. Many departments require the credits or degree to be related to fire science. For instance, Plymouth firefighters get an extra $1,200 a year for an associate’s degree in fire science. But a Quincy firefighter gets a 10 percent raise for a master’s degree — but it could be in business, management, or fire science.

■ EMTs and paramedics: In some towns, firefighters’ duties have expanded and it’s more common for them to be certified as emergency medical technicians or paramedics. In some, they must be certified as an EMT. Scituate firefighters, for example, must be EMT-certified and receive a $2,000 annual stipend.

■ 24-hour shifts: Many departments in the region work 24-hour shifts, usually two shifts over eight days. But the work patterns vary. Walpole has 24 hours on; 48 off; 24 on; four days off.

Stephen MacDougall, president of the Dedham union, who drives an oil truck as a second job, likes the 24-hour shifts, although they can be tough on family life. For instance, if a firefighter swaps shifts or does overtime, he or she might not see a spouse and family for several days.

■ Clothing: Several departments have clothing allowances. Milton has a uniform voucher of $400. In Norwell, it’s $700. Dedham firefighters gets $500 a year to purchase work uniforms and $375 for cleaning.

Several departments are now in contract negotiations or will be soon.

Plymouth firefighters have been without a contract since last year and are in mediation, said union president Mark Stoddart. Unlike most towns, firefighters there don’t have 24-hour shifts but work two 10-hour days, then two 14-hour nights, followed by four days off.

While drug and alcohol testing was a big issue in Boston, Plymouth has nothing about that subject in its contract.

“On a personal note, I’m not opposed to it,’’ said Stoddart, who added that he would be more interested in having a total health and welfare package. Because negotiations are ongoing, he declined to say if alcohol and drug testing was an issue, or to discuss any other issues, including pay.

“Times are tough,’’ said Stoddart, “but I don’t believe we ever get paid what we are worth.’’

Hingham firefighters, who have also been without a contract for a year, plan to start negotiating a new contract soon, said Bill McIntyre, president of the union.

“These are tough economic times, and no one was super excited about getting to the table,’’ he said. While he was unsure how difficult negotiations would be, he did not consider the issues “as contentious as one would think.’’

Ken Tracy, president of the Walpole firefighters’ union, said a new drug and alcohol clause has been tough to nail down. The parties agreed to include the clause in the most recent contract, but couldn’t come to an agreement on the wording. So now the attorneys for each side are trying to work something out.

Base pay in Walpole ranges from about $827 to $1,033 a week. Firefighters also receive a 7 percent stipend for having EMT certification, which all new hires must, and 11 percent for EMT/paramedics.

Educational incentives are available, although only a few take advantage of those, said Tracy.

He said working 24-hour shifts, as they do there, cuts down on sick time dramatically. Before, the men worked 10-hour day shifts and 14-hour night shifts.

But because so many of the firefighters work a second job, they were often too tired to come to work.

The longer shifts gives them more rest time in between, he said.

“With our pay, most of us work a second job,’’ said Tracy.


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