Raleigh firefighters consider legal action over pay disparity

 — Despite two straight years of pay raises and another potential raise this year, there’s growing dissension in the Raleigh Fire Department over pay disparity.

The issue centers on a new pay scale based on rank that applies only to newly promoted firefighters and not to firefighters who currently hold a specific rank. A group of firefighters is considering legal action because firefighters with the same rank and even longevity are earning different salaries based on when they were promoted.

“Morale is very low in the fire department over this,” Capt. Robbie Braxton said.

WRAL Investigates found nearly 150 grievances have been filed where older, higher-ranking firefighters are getting passed in pay by colleagues with less experience and less time in rank. Braxton is one of those who’s upset.

“I’d been captain 11 years, and he got promoted to captain and went past me in rank,” he said of a fellow firefighter.

Lt. Jeffrey Barefoot, an 18-year fire service veteran, tells a similar story.

“Two-and-a-half years later, a classmate of mine was promoted to the same rank as me and jumped me by $7,800,” Barefoot said.

Lt. Shawn Burns, president of the Raleigh Professional Firefighters Association, said the new pay scale is the top complaint he hears about.

“It’s the leapfrogging that this new system has generated that’s become this huge issue.,” Burns said.

When filing grievances and negotiating a fix to the pay disparity didn’t work, the firefighters hired attorneys Stacy Miller and Sean Cole. Miller said the threat of litigation could have been avoided.

“The leadership of the Raleigh Fire Department advised the city that this was going to happen.. They were told repeatedly, repeatedly. They ignored it and implemented it,” Miller said.

Cole said the fight is about equity.

“They’ve put in the time, and now they’re not being treated fairly,” he said, calling it age discrimination. “The people who are negatively affected by this are all firefighters who are over 40. Nearly half of our fire department.”

Damien Graham, a spokesman for the city, said the City Council adopted a new compensation system in 2017 after reviewing how the salaries paid to Raleigh workers compared to those paid in similar communities.

The change led to $11.4 million in raises for Raleigh police officers and firefighters, Graham said, noting firefighters received average raises of 12 to 22 percent.

Firefighters also received a 3 percent or 5 percent raise last October, depending on their position within the new compensation system, he said.

City Manager Ruffin Hall’s proposed 2019-20 budget includes more than $800,000 to help mitigate the “leap-frogging” issue in the police and fire departments caused by the new compensation system, Graham said. Police officers and firefighters also would receive a 3 to 5 percent raise under the propoed budget, he said.

While applauding the raises, firefighters like Braxton said they just want what’s fair so they can concentrate on their jobs.

“We’re not trying to get rich. We love helping the people of Raleigh. We just want fair pay,” Braxton said.


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