Career-ending emails sent to more than 200 Houston fire fighters, US
Over 200 Houston fire fighters have been laid off after the implementation of Proposition B, which was voted in on 6 November 2018. Proposition B is a law that grants city fire fighters ‘pay parity’ with Houston Police Department officers. It’s the idea that police officers and fire fighters of similar rank and service length should receive the same pay. The concept dates back to more than a century ago, when the first professional departments of both types were founded. Today a number of big cities, including New York, Chicago, and Dallas, employ pay parity. Houston did so, too, until the early 2000s, when its departments negotiated separate deals. Police agreed to raises in exchange for pension and benefit cuts, while fire fighters rejected the raises and continued to bulk up their pensions, leading to the current 25 percent pay gap between the two entities.
About a year ago, contract negotiations between the city and its fire fighters broke down—yet again—leaving them without raises for the third year running. They were already upset about Mayor Sylvester Turner’s solution to Houston’s ongoing budget crisis, which, however unpopular it may be to say so, is largely the result of its employee-pension obligations. The mayor cut benefits and increased pension-contribution requirements for all city employees, a move that, according to Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton, amounted to a pay cut. So the fire fighters decided to go around the city entirely, collecting enough signatures to put Prop B before voters this month.
Six days after Houston City Council approved 220 fire fighter layoffs, Fire Chief Sam Peña followed through telling the department's newest hires in an emailed letter, "I am sorry to have to notify you that your position is being eliminated..." Peña explained the layoffs, telling fire fighters, "The City of Houston has experienced a sizeable budget shortfall due to the implementation of Prop B."
The letter says the layoffs are not a reflection of their individual work and informed them of upcoming informational sessions on unemployment resources.
Hours later, one of the 200 told media, "It's a gut punch." He spoke with us on the condition we not reveal his identity as it would open him up to city discipline. The military vet and father of a young family moved to Houston to be a part of what he called "the best fire department in the country."
On Tuesday,30 April 2019, the email that could end his career informed him his last day will be 30 June 2019. "I got an email that said, 'Hey, you're no longer needed. You've got 60 days. Don't forget to turn your gear in, or you are going to get charged three grand.'" The fire fighter we spoke with admits he watched the months long debate closely, even the vote last week, knowing he was likely to be among those laid off. The newest hires are the first fired.
Last week as council prepared to vote on authorizing 220 fire fighter layoffs, Mayor Sylvester Turner told council members, "No one is saying you have to like the vote, I don't like the vote ... but we do have to balance our budget." Turner has said for months the city cannot balance the budget without these layoffs. Last week, a majority of council agreed.
As he watched the debate, the fire fighter ended up convinced that even if the city has money to pay Prop B raises, Mayor Turner won't spend it to save fire fighter jobs. "He's going to double down and give us the worst deal possible," the fire fighter said. "And he's going to make everyone suffer for not bending a knee to him."
Turner has said he does not want to lay off fire fighters, cadets or municipal workers. The Prop B ballot measure, approved by Houston voters in November 2018, mandates fire fighters be paid similarly to police officers in Houston. It will mean a raise for the thousands of fire fighters who remain at HFD.
The union for Houston fire fighters said it was not notified of the exact timing of the emails and split blame for the job cuts between Chief Peña and Mayor Turner. In a written statement, union president Marty Lancton wrote, "From the city's founding to the Great Depression, to two world wars and deep downturns of the energy industry, no fire chief had taken this course of action until today. Chief Peña now is alone among all Houston fire chiefs in that dubious distinction... The fire chief is carrying out Sylvester Turner's slash-and-burn plan for HFD."
In a written statement after the layoff emails were sent, Houston Fire Chief Peña wrote, "This is the most difficult thing I have had to do in my career... I hope that we can reach an agreement ... to ... avoid the layoffs."
If not, many of the 3 700 remaining fire fighters will get raises, Chief Peña will shift schedules and take several units off Houston's streets. Peña says it will only have a minimal impact on public safety, averaging less than a two-second increase in response time citywide.
"You have to be an idiot to believe it," the fire fighter told us. It's easy to understand the raw emotion. Even still, all he wants is to keep his job. "I spent my whole life committed to helping my common man. And that's what I want to do... (and) I want to do it here."
The layoff notices come as the city and unions for fire fighters and police officers remain in court-ordered mediation. The next session is scheduled for Thursday.
Fire Chief Peña told journalists, "I am still hopeful for a deal. I refuse to give up."