Aging Rural/Metro firefighters can't afford to retire

The company does offer another retirement benefit: a 401(k), started in 1990. The 401(k) allows for a maximum 15 percent annual employee contribution. Rural/Metro matches up to 2 percent, at the company's discretion.

The stock program was terminated in 1999. The 401(k) continues, although the last company contribution was made in December 2000, for 1999.

There is a new retirement benefit, of sorts. When Rural/Metro signed its first union contract with Maricopa County firefighters in 2000, it agreed to give firefighters 3 percent of their salaries on top of their base pay, to put toward retirement. The firefighters are encouraged to put the 3 percent into the 401(k), or they could put it in another retirement plan -- or simply pocket the cash.

Kevin Scanlon
Kevin Scanlon

So, here are a Rural/Metro firefighter's retirement benefits:

• Whatever he has left in Rural/Metro stock.

• Whatever he's put into his 401(k), plus the company's 2 percent, if the company decides to contribute.

• Three percent of his salary, which he can put in his 401(k) or another retirement plan.

Compare that with a Tempe firefighter's retirement benefits:

• Arizona Public Safety Retirement pension.

The employee puts in 4.65 percent of his salary; the city of Tempe contributes 3 percent. In exchange, the firefighter can retire after 20 years at 50 percent of his base pay (averaged from the top three of his last 10 years of employment). Or he can retire after 32 years, with 80 percent of his base pay.

• A 457 plan (like a 401[k], but for public employees) with an annual match of at least $650.

• Post-retirement health benefits plan, funded at 100 percent.

Now consider if the firefighter dies on the job.

Tempe firefighter:

• Spouse gets a full pension for life.

• A $250,000 lump-sum payment from the federal public safety officer benefit program.

• Life insurance policy, doubled if he's killed in the line of duty.

• Kids get a partial pension.

Rural/Metro firefighter:

• Two years' salary.

• Benefits from a workers' compensation plan.

There is one death benefit Rural/Metro firefighters share with public firefighters: In the case of death, the firefighters' kids get full tuition at the Arizona state university of their choice. That is a state law.

Given that, why would anyone want to be a Rural/Metro firefighter?

Good question, says one fortysomething firefighter with more than 15 years on the job. He hadn't dreamed of being a firefighter; he was just looking for a job when a friend suggested Rural/Metro.

Like others, the firefighter says he was young and naive. Didn't really think much about retirement. And why worry? He was a stockholder in a growing company.

The stock "doubled and doubled and doubled and they kept coming out and telling us you're going to be millionaires," he recalls. At its peak, his stock was worth well more than $500,000.

When the stock started to slide, the firefighter considered selling his 50 percent, but he says it was a tough decision because of the way the stock was sold. The company told him it would have up to three months to sell it, and the firefighter was worried that wouldn't be advantageous to him.

"If it went down a dollar, there's $20,000. So I was afraid that they were going to screw me. Now I wish I'd done it," he says.

And when the stock dove? "I immediately upped my 401(k) to as much as I could put in and figured I'd work until I died."

Now, he says, firefighting is all he knows, and he's too old to go to get hired at another department. "Even if I went somewhere else today, we're still talking 20 years before I'd get 50 percent of my salary [in a pension]."

A career change, he says, is out of the question. "In this job climate? How do I reproduce my income? How do you go somewhere else and make over $50,000?"

He hates talking about money. "We have a funny job. You don't do it for a paycheck, you do it because that's what you're about."

But without his retirement savings, the firefighter can't talk about anything else. The way he figures it, he's owed.

"We're here in this city when people are born and when they die. In the past week I've seen more deaths than you'll probably see in your entire life. You know, how do you put a price on sitting there comforting someone as they're dying, or as you're saving their life?"

Last year, Steve Springborn, president of the United Firefighters of Maricopa County, approached Rural/Metro with a proposal for a pension.

The pension would be similar to that of public firefighters in the state, but it would be a 25-year pension, rather than 20. Under the proposal, each firefighter would put in 7.65 percent of his salary. Springborn says there would be no additional cost to the company; Rural/Metro's burden would be almost exactly that of the 2 percent 401(k) match it makes (or might make) now.

Springborn says Rural/Metro has refused even to discuss the proposal.

Ted Beam, president of the company's Fire Integrated Response Group, acknowledges Rural/Metro has not discussed the proposal with the union.

It doesn't sound like progress is likely. Beam says he understands that by law Rural/Metro must bargain on certain matters, such as benefits, but adds that it's unfair for the union to make such a proposal when its contract is not up until 2003. He calls it cherry-picking.

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