By Erica C. Barnett
A tentative 2022-2026 contract between the Seattle firefighters’ union, Local 27, and the city—still subject to approval or rejection by fire department rank and file—includes minimum annual wage increases of 2 to 4 percent, plus a “COLA [cost of living adjustment] bank” that would serve as a repository for “excess” cost of living increases during years when inflation is higher than 4 percent, which could be tapped to keep pay increases at a steady 4 percent through the life of the contract, even if inflation dips below that level.
The goal of the COLA bank is to keep annual wage increases stable even if inflation drops. For example, in 2024, when the rate of inflation is expected to be 4.5 percent, the firefighters would get a 4 percent COLA boost and bank the remaining 0.5 percent for use in future years. In real terms, a wage increase that’s less than the rate of inflation represents a pay cut, because wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living.
The tentative agreement, which would replace the contract that expired at the end of 2021, includes retroactive wage increases of 4.5 percent in 2022 (with another 2.3 percent going into the COLA bank) and 5.5 percent in 2023 (with 7 percent going into the bank), plus 4 percent going forward. After that, the annual increases are 100 percent of inflation, with a minimum base increase of 2 percent (if inflation goes that low) and a maximum base increase of 4 percent.
An FAQ included in the contract raises the question of why the city is not providing a true cost of living increase—that is, a wage increase equal to the increase in annual inflation. The answer: “The City was not willing to agree to a pay increase that included 100% of CPI. … Your Negotiations Team and Executive Board feel that we deserve 100% of CPI and we did our best to get it. However, we believe that this offer is a fair and reasonable deal that is better than our alternatives, in part because to capture 100% of the CPI we have also negotiated COLA banking.”
Additionally, according to the tentative contract, the city “intend[s] to provide all City employees with the same [annual wage increase] each year.”
As we’ve reported, the Coalition of City Unions, an umbrella group for unions that represent more than 6,000 city workers, has been seeking a wage increase closer to the actual rate of inflation. Initially, Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed what union leaders called an “insulting” 1 percent increase. Harrell has reportedly increased that offer to 2.5 percent. Stagnant wages have forced many city employees to move out of Seattle, and are making it difficult to hire qualified people for positions that pay far less than similar private-sector jobs.
In contrast, Seattle police officers received a 17 percent pay increase after their last contract negotiation, with retroactive pay increases between 3 and 4 percent a year for the years they worked without a contract. The city council approved hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 for police last year.
The proposed wage increases in this contract proposal are roughly similar to those in the firefighters’ last contract, adopted in 2019; however, the rate of inflation has increased dramatically over the past few years and the attrition and the vacancy rate for firefighters, like many other government jobs, has increased dramatically since 2020.
Voting on the contract began on Monday and will continue through next Tuesday morning. If the firefighters reject the contract, it could go into arbitration—a process in which a neutral outside party makes a binding decision about the terms of a contract.