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California firefighters get shorter workweeks — but not for 2 years

Cal Fire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake in 2015.
Josh Edelson
AP Photo
Cal Fire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake in 2015.

Facing a mental health crisis, Cal Fire crews sought less of a workload. But they have to wait two years under their new contract.

A new contract for California’s state firefighters includes immediate pay raises, but delays for two years the shorter workweeks they wanted to relieve job-related stress.

Cal Fire firefighters say overwork and distress from a continuous barrage of wildfires have left them with increasing mental health problems, including post traumatic stress disorder. In an interview earlier this year with CalMatters, Cal Fire Director Joe Tyler said the department faced a mental health crisis and called it his top priority.

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

Experts say stress from long hours and dangerous work triggers health problems, excessive 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.

“Nothing for the next two years will relieve those stresses.”

The new contract between the state and Cal Fire’s 7,000-member union establishes a 66-hour workweek, but that won’t happen until late 2024. Firefighters currently work a 72-hour week, but often spend weeks on duty during wildfires because of the state’s mandatory overtime requirements. They sometimes work 21-day shifts.

“Nothing for the next two years will relieve those stresses,” 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 membership vote to approve the pact last month was the closest he could remember.

“It’s highly frustrating to my membership that we were not able to 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 will be adequate staff to cover gaps caused by reduced work schedules.

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

The work hours outlined in the contract are subject to budget changes: The agreement contains a clause that could void the reductions if the state declares a fiscal emergency and the general fund cannot support the cost.

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

“That made the membership nervous,” Edwards said. “The state has to make good on its promise.”

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

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

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

Edwards said union officials met this week with Tyler. “I believe the director takes this (reduction of work hours) seriously and is trying to figure out ways to make it happen,” he said.

“For anyone in the emergency response profession, there is always more work to do in the mental health arena.”

Fighting fires has become a year-round job in California as drought, buildup of fuels and a changing climate render much of the state a tinderbox. The state spent $3.7 billion to fight fires last year. Although this was a mild year, fires generally are growing larger and more dangerous.

Cal Fire crews not only work on wildfires around the state but they also staff local firehouses, serving as first-responders for 911 calls and other emergencies.

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

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

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

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.