California firefighters get shorter work weeks, but not for 2 years

A new contract for California state firefighters includes immediate pay increases but delays shorter workweeks by two years to alleviate work-related stress.

Cal Fire firefighters say overwork and the anguish of an ongoing barrage of wildfires have left them with escalating mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder. In an interview earlier this year with CalMatters, Cal Fire Chief Joe Tyler said the department was facing a mental health crisis and listed it as his top priority.

A CalMatters research in June revealed widespread fatigue and trauma at the state’s firefighting agency, Cal Fire, and firefighters described an epidemic of suicides and suicidal thoughts.

Experts say the stress of long hours and dangerous work triggers health problems, binge drinking, drug use and marital discord. Cal Fire does not track suicides or PTSD among its ranks, but many firefighters and their supervisors told CalMatters that the problems are rampant.

The new contract between the state and Cal Fire’s 7,000-member union calls for a 66-hour work week, but that won’t happen until the end of 2024. Currently, firefighters work a 72-hour week, but often spend weeks on duty during wildfires due to state mandated overtime requirements. Sometimes they work 21-day shifts.

“Nothing in the next two years will ease those tensions,” said Tim Edwards, president of Cal Fire Union Local 2881.

Union leaders sought a 56-hour work week, but reluctantly agreed to the compromise.

Edwards said the member vote to approve the compact last month was the closest he could remember.

“It’s very frustrating for my membership that we couldn’t solidify something more solid,” Edwards said.

Cal Fire spokesman Tony Andersen said the intent of the two-year delay is to gradually hire and train new employees so there are adequate staff to fill the gaps caused by reduced work hours.

The contract establishes a labor-management committee that will meet regularly to discuss workweek reductions and other issues.

The working hours foreseen in the contract are subject to budgetary changes: The agreement contains a provision that could nullify the reductions if the state declares a fiscal emergency and the general fund cannot cover the cost.

That may not be far-fetched. Not long after the contract was finalized, the Legislative Analyst’s Office projected a deficit of $24 billion for 2023-24.

“That made the members nervous,” Edwards said. “The state has to keep its promise.”

In an email response to questions, Tyler said mental health issues are being addressed in the agency’s next strategic plan, which is currently under review. He said there are other ways to reduce work-related stress besides shorter work weeks, noting that regardless of the collective bargaining process, the state added 1,500 Cal Fire positions in fiscal year 2022-23 and nearly 200 positions relief staff: new hires—for the current fiscal year.

“For anyone in the emergency response profession, there is always more work to be done in the mental health field,” Tyler said, adding that the agency has increased mental health messaging and encouraged more openness to reporting. problems.

The contract granted an immediate 2.5% pay increase last month, a 2% increase in January and another 2% in June.

Edwards said union officials met with Tyler this week. “I think the director is serious about this (reducing work hours) and he is trying to find ways to achieve it,” he said.

Firefighting has become a year-round job in California, as drought, fuel accumulation and a changing climate turn much of the state into a powder keg. The state spent $3.7 billion fighting fires last year. Though This was a temperate year fires are generally getting bigger and more dangerous.

Cal Fire crews not only work on wildfires across the state, but also work at local fire stations, serving as first responders for 911 calls and other emergencies.

Firefighters told CalMatters they have difficulty accessing mental health care for PTSD, a notoriously difficult-to-diagnose condition, and have to pay out-of-pocket for their own care. The new contract provides $260 a month for “health care access” to each employee enrolled in the state’s insurance program.

Cal Fire’s behavioral health program, which has 30 employees, assesses the mental health needs of those who request it, and the agency regularly pays for intensive treatment in private facilities for employees dealing with trauma or PTSD.

The union recently won planning approval for a 32-bed facility in Riverside County to treat mental health issues for Cal Fire and other firefighters, Edwards said. The treatment center is expected to start operating sometime next year, she said.

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