Ga. FFs see lack of opportunity for advancement, blame chief, who defends his actions
“Everybody is smashed down here in the bottom half of the pay range,” said Webb Smith, a now-former Marietta member
By Taylor Croft
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
MARIETTA, Ga. — Some Marietta firefighters say Fire Chief Tim Milligan is not properly advancing them through the city’s pay structure, and low wages have become the leading cause of resignation at the department — a claim that the chief and other city officials say isn’t true.
Webb Smith, a 15-year Marietta firefighter who resigned in October, compiled a 90-page report and submitted it to the city council in October to show that pay has not increased at an appropriate rate. He said many firefighters are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.
Smith said payroll documents he received through a Georgia Open Records Act request show that the minimum salaries have increased, but actual salaries for department veterans have not risen at the same rate.
“We’re not asking them to increase the pay range,” Smith said. “We’re asking for a pathway to earn the salaries that have already been approved.”
The city conducted a pay study earlier this year and approved raises for employees, but firefighters say the results have not solved the low wages plaguing the department. Only three rank-and-file firefighters are making it above the midpoint within the salary range, as established in the recent pay study, according to August 2022 payroll documents provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by former firefighters.
“Everybody is smashed down here in the bottom half of the pay range,” Smith said. “Nobody moves up ... You’ve got a 19-year guy, he makes $55,000, and he’s not even at the midpoint.”
The AJC interviewed six current firefighters, all of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. All agreed that low pay and the lack of opportunity for raises have left them frustrated, with some looking elsewhere for work.
Milligan said firefighters are below the midpoint salary because the range shifts up each time the city approves market pay adjustments.
“The pay scale moves, so the minimum, the starting points move,” Milligan said. “And so that then moves all the midpoints.”
But Smith said the whole point of moving the pay scale up is to move the employees up with it, so they can advance to the mid and upper quartiles of the range. Only three people in the department have been able to reach the midpoint, based on the August 2022 payroll data.
“He’s moving the scale, but he’s not moving employees with the scale,” Smith said. “The current payroll is still full of inequities ... You still have six-year firefighters making more than 19-year firefighters.”
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In Milligan’s written response to the firefighter’s 90-page report, he said those making more money with fewer years of experience took the steps to get additional certifications, including paramedic and master firefighter status.
But Smith and several current firefighters said they believe tenure should also earn increases in pay, even if it’s just a small yearly percentage.
In a step-in-grade pay system, employees are given established salary increases as they spend more years in their positions or advance in rank. Smith said Marietta should adopt that type of system to provide a more objective path for advancement.
Milligan said the city has considered it, but that system “doesn’t go with the philosophy of the city’s pay plan” and limits flexibility with promotions and raises.
“If we’ve got someone that comes in and they kind of put their head down and get to work, and they choose to promote quicker than others, we need to be able to recognize that,” he said.
George McKeehan, a former assistant chief who worked at the Marietta Fire Department for 21 years, said step-in-grade is well-liked at other fire departments.
“Cobb County does a step-in-grade, and I haven’t heard any issues out of that,” he said. “They’re very, very happy with it actually.”
Under Cobb’s structure, firefighters at the lowest rank move incrementally based on their time in service with a direct pathway for pay increases up to $70,000.
While Marietta’s pay range for the firefighter rank is comparable, with a $45,000 minimum up to $70,000 maximum, the path for advancement isn’t structured. None of the firefighters are at the maximum salary.
The city gave 3% market adjustments to all employees, on top of the 2.39% median salary increase as a result of the pay study, which concluded that the new pay ranges are competitive in today’s market.
Milligan said once firefighters have achieved master firefighter and paramedic status, the other options to increase their pay include promotion or city-wide market adjustments.
“For those who choose to stay in entry-level positions, their salaries will be moved by regular market adjustments,” Milligan said in his written response.
But Smith said the cost of living and market adjustments aren’t raises; they are “an adjustment to help offset inflation,” and firefighters should be able to advance in the designated pay scale beyond those yearly adjustments.
“Some people don’t wish to be promoted,” Smith said. “They want to be a firefighter throughout their 25-year career, and there’s tremendous value in that. You need experienced firefighters.”
McKeehan agreed: “It’s in the people’s best interest to have their firefighters specialize in something and have the people that actually still ride the trucks be very good at what they do,” he said.
All the current firefighters interviewed for this story said morale at the department has reached an all-time low.
Smith said the department has lost over 30 firefighters in the last two years, and nine of those individuals retired, according to the chief.
In Milligan’s written response, he said the department’s leadership “acknowledges that there has been attrition over the past few years,” and it has been “significantly impacted by unprecedented workforce trends.”
Milligan said he has an open-door policy, and firefighters are always welcome to express their concerns.
“Let’s set it up,” he said. “Let’s have the conversation. What can we do to fix it?”
But firefighters said they have tried for years to talk with the fire chief about how to increase their pay. Now, they are afraid to speak out for fear of being skipped over for promotion or denied other advancement opportunities in the future.
“When people push for change, they’re targeted, and that’s very difficult to prove,” Smith said.
Although some have resigned, the department has had no trouble filling those positions and is currently filling the last two vacancies, Milligan said.
But Smith said a firefighter on payroll does not equal a firefighter on duty.
“If they hire someone, it’s going to take over 20 weeks for that person to go through recruit school,” leaving firefighters to fill the hours with mandatory overtime, Smith said.
Current firefighters said excessive overtime has caused burnout and even more frustration.
“These are the men and women who are going to come to your house in the middle of the night, no matter what the emergency is,” Smith said. “They don’t want to think about money. They shouldn’t have to. They should be able to just do their jobs.”