Six people don't seem like enough to form a union. But this month, the six full-time firefighters for South Jordan did just that, accepting their charter from a representative of the International Association of Fire Fighters.In a right-to-work state like Utah, the decision to organize might seem moot. Unions don't have to be recognized by city or county governments. And - with the exception of police unions - they don't have any real bargaining power.
But to the South Jordan firefighters, getting a union was a way to make a point, a way to let City Council members know that firefighters are unhappy with a 30 percent pay cut the council instituted in February.
Depending on the firefighter, the cut means anywhere from $10,000 to $14,000 in lost income in a year, South Jordan Fire Capt. Matt Evans said.
"That's pretty hard for people to make up. If they (city officials) had talked to us, maybe we could have planned for it. But they didn't," he said.
Firefighters found out about the cut in a phone call from Chief Gary Whatcott about three days before getting a reduced paycheck in February, Evans said.
But South Jordan Mayor Dix McMullen disputes that firefighters have taken a cut. It's more of a pay adjustment - one that firefighters knew was coming weeks in advance, he said.
An accounting error made almost two years ago has been paying firefighters at an hourly rate that was too high. In McMullen's words, firefighters were "grossly overpaid."
Most fire departments base an hourly pay rate on a 56-hour week. That was supposed to happen in South Jordan. But an accounting error fixed the pay rate on a 40-hour week. The result was that the higher hourly wage was paid for the 56 hours included in the firefighter's week, South Jordan administrators said.
That means firefighters were getting paid time and half for that additional 16 hours each week, McMullen said.
Whatcott discovered the error in January. He realized salary projections were on pace to eclipse his budget for the year. Whatcott brought the discrepancy to the attention of city officials and the adjustment was made, McMullen said.
"Grossly overpaid" or not, firefighters say the city should have worked with them to lessen the financial blow.
In fact on March 10, they presented council members with a letter requesting the council freeze the salaries at the pre-correction rate and then conduct a salary survey to determine a fair and equitable wage in the Salt Lake Valley marketplace.
On average, firefighters around the valley earn between $27,900 and $39,300 based on a survey conducted by Evans. South Jordan's pay scale ranges from $19,800 to $28,000.
"What we really wanted was to open this up for discussion," Evans said. "It's even fine if they want to start new people on a different scale. But we've had no dialogue."
Council members declined to consider the salary freeze, but did vote not to make firefighters repay the money they were "overpaid," McMullen said.
"The council had the option of giving them the proper amount of money and then deducting the overpayment, but they chose just to adjust their salaries. It's in line with their contract," McMullen said.
McMullen said the city plans to conduct a salary survey of its own and then consider making salary adjustments for all city employees.
He said he wasn't aware the firefighters' decision to unionize had anything to do with the pay adjustment. Nor did he fear that through smaller salaries the city might lose its experienced staff and be forced to replace them with less experienced firefighters.
"We're a small city," he said. "Paying a competitive wage is always going to be a challenge."
Evans said firefighters felt that forming a union, as they did on June 9, would at least give the six the support of a larger national organization and access to research and information that might be useful in negotiating contracts down the line.
But it's likely that most of South Jordan's current firefighters will seek other employment, he said. On average, South Jordan's firefighters have about eight years' experience, he said.
"Why would they stay, when they can go to (Salt Lake) County or somewhere and make at least what they were making before?" Evans said. "It's probably not so much a questions of if as when."
And if, in fact, firefighters have been "overpaid," Evans said, it's not a new situation. Three years ago, when the department put six permanent full-time positions in place, Evans said he and other firefighters raised the issue of their salary rate. They thought it might be too high.
"(The council) told us not to worry about it," he said. "So now, why should we pay for their mistakes?"