Kan. city firefighters, supporters protest over wages

Wichita union president Ted Bush said the city's salary offer was not comparable with other area large cities and blamed the department's staffing level on the pay

Michael Stavola
The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA, Kan. — Wichita firefighters, their families and supporters cheered outside of Wichita City Hall on Tuesday after union officials told them that during contract negotiations they immediately rejected the city's offer for raises.

International Association of Fire Fighters Local 135 president Ted Bush said the city's offer wasn't even close to bringing firefighter wages up to a rate comparable with other large cities in the region. Union officials said firefighters have started to leave the department in large numbers and pay is a major reason why. The department being short-staffed, they said, is putting additional stress on the remaining firefighters.

About 100 people protested outside of City Hall throughout the morning, holding signs that said "Honk support Wichita firefighters," and "What's the price to save lives" and "The price is wrong Bob." The last is a line said to Bob Barker in a movie. Instead of Barker, the former The Price Is Right host, this Bob is City Manager Robert Layton.

Mayor Brandon Whipple and Wichita City Council members went out and spoke with the protesters. Whipple, who wore a firefighter union T-Shirt, said he wanted the fire department to be the best in the state, which meant the best pay and equipment.

About the pay, Whipple said he didn't think they were far off. And the money he said would come from setting priorities, like not paying millions of dollars for a proposed ski lake in a wealthy Wichita community.

He said he's expressed his concerns to Layton and that he expects that would be reflected as negotiations continue. He said he believes the council supports better pay as well.

The union is set to speak with Wichita fire management and human resources again about pay increases next Tuesday. Bush said they left the last meeting with a counter offer but wouldn't say what that was since negotiations were ongoing.

The current three-year contract expires in December. It included a possible merit raise of 2.5% each year and annual pay increases of 1.25 to 1.5% each year. Bush said that the contract wasn't satisfactory.

Bush said more and more firefighters are leaving the department because of stress around low pay and rising call volume. There are also fewer people applying to fill those roles, he said.

Union vice president Dustin Winter said Newton starts its firefighters at a higher wage despite responding to far fewer calls. He said Newton responded to about 4,100 calls a year, while the firehouse he works at in Wichita did about twice as more. The whole department responded to more than 55,000 calls last year.

One way the city has tried to lure people in is by offering recruits more than $19 an hour, then cutting their pay to more than $15 after they graduate, Bush said. The idea is that the higher wage is based on a 40-hour workweek and since they work more after graduation, he said, the two values are comparable. Bush called it "100% trickery."

In an email, city spokesperson Megan Lovely said: "Recruits are paid a flat rate for a 40-hour week. After hired, firefighters transition to an hourly pay rate but the amount paid remains consistent.

"It's worth noting that the average salary for a firefighter is $61,000 annually. And we have committed in negotiations to increase pay for firefighter staff."

Bush said firefighter morale is plummeting. A union survey done earlier this year showed that more than half of the 250-plus members who filled out the survey have considered leaving the department. The union represents more than 400 employees, or more than 90% of the department, Bush said.

He said the employees who came to protest could be retaliated against by the city. Bush said he was "ceremoniously removed from my station and sent to another one for union actively" and another union official said people on the union board rarely get promoted.

"We aren't afraid anymore," Bush said.

The fire department did not return a call from the Eagle for comment.

Union attorney Joni Franklin said the law prohibits, and the union doesn't want, a strike.

"They're always going to show up to work, they're not going to strike and that's part of what the management knows," she said. "But it also doesn't prevent people from leaving jobs."


(c)2022 The Wichita Eagle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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