Bangor’s firefighters union wants the city to use more than $400,000 in federal COVID-19 aid as premium pay for its first responders to help attract new employees and retain existing ones.
The union hasn’t received any response since making a request three months ago that would amount to nearly $4,300 for each firefighter this year and next year, said Jared Willey, a Bangor firefighter and president of Local 772 of the International Association of Firefighters.
The request is already a sticking point between firefighters and the city manager. It would come from the $20.8 million that the city received under the federal American Rescue Plan Act between 2021 and 2022. While many Maine cities wasted no time in allocating funds, including some that gave bonuses to first responders, Bangor has been slow to distribute its aid.
“I feel we’re not people. We’re budget items, we’re employee numbers, we’re a tax burden,” Willey said. “We’re not viewed as an entity that’s important to a city of our size with the needs it has.”
The union wants two payments of roughly $4,256 to go to its 96 employees this year and next, adding up to roughly 8 percent of the department’s $5.1 million annual payroll budget. The second payment would help Bangor remain competitive through the current contract, Willey said, vowing the union would not make other wage requests until contract talks next spring.
Paying essential workers is one of the few things pandemic relief funding can be used for, according to federal rules. Portland firefighters received a $1,000 bonus in the city’s first ARPA tranche and $2,500 in the second, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said. They also received extra hazard pay of $2 per hour for three months.
Bangor City Manager Debbie Laurie said the city’s firefighters, like Portland’s, received an additional $2 per hour “due to the essential nature of their work” from April 26, 2020 to July 11, 2020.
This amounted to an additional $400 for each employee, Willey said. While he believes premium pay would help boost morale and attract new firefighters, Laurie said using one-time money for ongoing costs is “not financially sustainable.”
“To date, the city has not utilized or allocated any ARPA funding under the premium pay expenditure category for any department,” Laurie said.
In June 2021, the city and Local 772 negotiated and signed a three-year contract that set pay rates, Laurie said. The parties will bargain again next spring, before the contract expires on June 30, 2024. Councilor Gretchen Schaefer declined to comment and said any discussion involving employee wages and union contracts is a personnel matter.
While mid-contract payments are normally unpopular with municipal leaders, Willey noted that the city granted the police department a mid-contract raise in November 2022, which he called “a slap in the face” to he and his coworkers.
“The department feels overlooked and undervalued,” he said. “It feels like we’re begging for scraps off the table.”
The request comes as the department struggles to fill six open positions left vacant when employees either retired or left for other departments. Bangor’s average starting hourly pay for a firefighter is about $19, and burnout is a problem at 12,000 calls per year, Willey said.
In Hampden, 13 firefighters and paramedics respond to about 1,200 calls per year, which amount to about three calls each day, Chief Christian Bailey said. Starting pay is based on training, but the highest starting pay is $27.81 per hour.
Bangor’s lower pay coupled with a high call volume compared with other nearby departments also leads fewer people to apply to open positions. When Willey applied to the department 13 years ago, he was one of 70 applicants. Recently, only six people applied for six open positions, and the department could fill only three positions.
Willey said the union plans to submit a formal application for a piece of the city’s ARPA money, as the public application window opened on April 3.
Bangor city councilors have established eight “areas of emphasis” they would like to see the city’s pandemic relief money used for, including mental health, substance use disorder, job training, aid to nonprofits, small business support, housing, homelessness and child care.
While firefighters agree the city should use much of its ARPA money to aid those issues, Willey said supporting first responders is key in addressing things like homelessness and drug use.
“We are not in any way trying to take away from the much needed response to the homelessness and the drug epidemic that we have in Bangor,” Willey said. “We are only asking that they don’t forget the people that respond, which are the fire department, the police department and public works that picks up the trash and the needles.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the number of calls Bangor firefighters respond to.