Firefighter pay

Jackson Hole Fire/EMS and Grand Teton National Park crews finish their work after extinguishing a fire in September in the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis neighborhood. As county commissioners adopted a new salary plan, the local firefighters’ union said the new plan didn’t appropriately handle its members’ pay rates.

County commissioners have approved a change in how employee salaries are calculated that their administrator says would impact all county employees.

But Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said the plan is leaving some of his employees without any movement.

And the local firefighters union feels that entry-level pay for some firefighters is not enough for the work they do. Plus, they say it’s lower than in comparable counties.

“Because of the intricacies of shift work and fire department pay, you missed the mark on 15 of our firefighters,” Austin Sessions, the president of Local 5067, told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners earlier in December.

Sessions first raised his concerns as commissioners approved a change to how they set pay for Teton County employees on Dec. 20. In the past the county would survey comparable employers and establish “market” rates for individual positions, adding 7.5% to that, hoping to make it competitive.

But in the past few months they’ve changed that structure.

In the new methodology, the county will still evaluate what comparable public entities in places like Bozeman, Montana, and Aspen, Colorado, pay their employees. But the county will now adjust those salaries for the cost of living in Jackson Hole and add 2.5% above the adjusted rate, starting Jan. 1.

Commissioners also plan to consider raising salaries another 2.5% when they budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins in July. And, per discussion when they approved the new salary plan on Dec. 20, the commissioners will also try in the coming months to tackle compression that the pay changes introduced.

“By making the 2.5% structural adjustment to the salary plan, every employee in the organization is receiving at least a 2.5% increase,” County Administrator Alyssa Watkins told commissioners Dec. 20, the day they approved the new plan. “However ... the market will adjust other positions to a different amount. So it really does vary across the board, but there is that base 2.5% for all employees.”

But on Monday, Sheriff Carr told commissioners some of his employees weren’t seeing any “movement.” And he called on commissioners to release the data underpinning the salary study so he could understand why.

He and Sessions, addressing commissioners together, reiterated the fire union’s concerns.

Carr said firefighter pay was a “glaring” issue.

The sheriff also encouraged commissioners to continue the conversation. They tangled with Sessions’ worries a week or so prior but didn’t make a specific recommendation for addressing then.

“The conversation seemed to die,” Carr said, “and we want to make sure that that does not happen.”

Among other things, Sessions worried about how the amount firefighters are paid jibes with the amount of training they have to go through, the amount of trust that’s placed in them and the amount of experience they’re required to have to apply for the job.

“Beginning pay for a firefighter-paramedic, who is the most highly trained pre-hospital provider that we deliver to our community, is just $18.16 an hour,” Sessions told commissioners. “This hardly seems competitive.”

Unlike typical 40-hour-a-week workers, who are expected to log 2,080 hours a year, firefighters work 24-hour shifts and for a total of 2,912 hours a year. At $18.16 an hour, a firefighter-paramedic’s starting wage in Teton County is $52,877 a year. A lower-ranked firefighter-EMT would make $16.47 for an annual salary of $47,961.

Under the county’s new salary matrix, a firefighter-EMT’s starting salary is roughly on par with a recreation programmer at Parks and Rec (also $47,961 a year), above a custodian in the county’s general services division ($43,502 annually) and below a road and levee maintenance coordinator ($50,359 annually).

When Sessions first raised his concerns, commissioners grappled with whether firefighters should be treated differently because of the 24-hour shifts and technical classification as 207(K) employees, a designation that allows employers to compute overtime for law enforcement officers and firefighters.

Watkins, at one point, said eating and sleeping on the job was a “benefit.”

“They are paid for sleep time, meal time etc.,” she said. “Your other employees are not subject to those benefits. So their wages are intrinsically different for some of those reasons.”

But that rubbed some people the wrong way. One of them was Gloria Courser, whose husband works for Fire/EMS.

“He is paid for those hours because they are hours he is away from family and the comfort of his home and unavailable to his family while he is available to the rest of you,” Courser said Monday. “He is not paid to eat and sleep. Those are simply biological necessities that happened during a 48-hour shift.”

After hearing from Courser, Sessions and Carr, commissioners changed course slightly.

A week before, they had made no specific commitment to address the firefighter issue outside of Watkins’ plans to overhaul the salary matrix in the 2023 fiscal year to address compression.

This time, Commission Chairwoman Natalia Macker asked Watkins to meet with Carr and Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen to discuss the issue and report back to commissioners.

She did not ask for Sessions to be included.

That was something Commissioner Luther Propst had called for.

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

Teton County Reporter

Billy Arnold has covered government and policy since January 2020, sitting through hours of Teton County meetings so readers don't have to. He moonlights as a ski reporter, helps with pandemic coverage and sneaks away to climb when he can.

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(1) comment

Jim Little Jr.

I drove past the new Target today and there was a sign that said “Now hiring, starting wage $24/hour”. We need to get serious about paying our Fire/EMS and Law Enforcement first responders a living wage before we end up with no first responders. $18 an hour for a highly qualified paramedic/firefighter isn’t a livable wage in our community anymore. My property taxes have tripled in the last 10 years. Lets start spending that money on people and affordable housing, not travel and tourism.

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