Listen to this article here
It’s been ten months since Tulsa’s firefighters entered into contract negotiations with city leaders, and there seems to be no end in sight.
Two weeks ago, the Tulsa Fire Union announced they could not reach a deal with the city, prompting negotiations to enter arbitration. Now, months after Mayor Bynum announced historic pay raises for the city’s police officers, veteran firefighters are sounding the alarm.
“Our firefighters’ salaries are averaging 25% behind the mark,” said Ronald Steward, President of Tulsa’s Professional Black Firefighter’s Association.
Firefighters’ low pay contribute to low recruitment
In an interview with The Black Wall St. Times, Stewart said wages for Tulsa’s firefighters have fallen far behind other departments in Oklahoma. Low salaries and an increased workload are making it harder and harder to recruit and retain talent.
“When you’re the second largest department in Oklahoma, but only the 16th highest paid, it’s a hard sell,” he said.
He’s right. It’s been fifteen years since the city’s firefighters have seen a substantial pay increase. In that time, applications have dropped nearly 90%, according to department officials. By year’s end, Tulsa could be facing a shortage of nearly 70 firefighters.
Stewart also noted the severe impact low wages are having on creating a more equitable and inclusive workforce.
“We hear a lot from leadership in this moment about diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said. “We want to produce equitable numbers of firefighters from different backgrounds in our department, but the pay makes it very difficult to recruit a highly motivated and diverse workforce.”
Overworked and underpaid, exhausted Tulsa firefighters “left out” of first responder raises
According to Matt Lay, the head of the local firefighter’s association, average pay for a first year firefighter in the city is just over $40,000. However, this rate isn’t the same for all of Tulsa’s first responders. Following Mayor Bynum’s push for a substantial pay increase for the city’s police, a new officer can now expect to make nearly $58,000 their first year on the force.
“We’re not asking for anything above and beyond,” Stewart said. “We’re just asking for a fair level the market dictates.”
By all indications, the city of Tulsa has not yet agreed to a number anywhere near the 15% raise just approved for police officers. While individuals directly involved in the arbitration process are not able to comment, sources tell The Black Wall Street Times recent offers have hovered somewhere between 3-3.5%.
When asked why he believes the city is so hesitant to pay firefighters a competitive wage, Ronald Stewart responded:
“I honestly do not know. That’s the million dollar question.”
Stewart remarked that, for a long time, the fire department has had the unique ability to “go a long way with very little”. That has never been more true that throughout the course of the pandemic.
“We’ve been asked to do a lot these last eighteen months,” he said. “Whenever the citizens of Tulsa called 9-1-1, that red truck was there. I’m proud of our response as stewards of this city and it’s citizens, but our pay does not reflect that.”
“We love giving back”: Tulsa’s fire departments continue serving their city as they simply ask for a fair wage
According to the city’s website, Tulsa’s firefighters work in shifts of “24 hours on, 48 hours off”. In a typical year, a firefighter can be expected to work more than 2,904 hours. This means a first year firefighter in Tulsa with a salary of just over $40,000 is making the equivalent of roughly $14/hour.
But with staffing levels down and nearly 60,000 calls to respond to every year, Stewart says some firefighters are now having to work far more than 24 hours in a single shift.
“Something has to give,” Stewart said. “We pride ourselves on this level of service, but you can only sustain it for a certain period of time. This cannot continue indefinitely.”
The department recently announced it’s even having to rely on federal grants to alleviate shortages amid budget constraints.
As the interview ended, Steward was asked if there was anything else he would like to be sure to add.
“Yes,” he said, “I just want to make sure people know that we aren’t asking for more than we deserve – we’re asking for a fair wage.”
“None of us became firefighters to be rich,” he continued. “We took this job on because we enjoy a life of service and we love giving back.”
“But, at some point, we need to be able to take care of our families as well.”
Local Tulsa station Fox 23 reached out to the city for comment about the issue in an earlier story. They noted the city released the following statement:
“This is ongoing and will be in arbitration, and we don’t have a comment at this time.”