By Gene-Paul Matson
ENGB/ East Coast Operations Director
All Pay is not equal
After 30 years as a wildland firefighter I have noticed that there are a number of ways that some companies dazzle their employees into thinking they pay better than other more honest and reputable ones. Hopefully this article helps some of my fellow ashe kickers and flame killers see through the smoke and haze and see what the true comparisons are.
The biggest scam I see is the direct pay versus employee. This means that the owner offers you $200 a day and pays you all of it. No taxes no mess more for me right? Well no, what that company just did is make you a subcontractor, you are now self employed. This means that you are now responsible for both halves of the 15.3% FICA tax instead of the 7.65% you normally pay while your employer pays the other half (this means that you get to pay $15.30 everyday that your employer should have and you get to do it at the end of the year when taxes are due and you were hoping for that big fat return)
As a subcontractor self employed the company doesn't pay and you are not eligible for workmans comp or unemployment insurance from them. You now have to carry your own insurance and and pay the deductibles out of pocket. That only averages about $30 a day so no biggie.You will also have to file an individual contractor exemption form and pay $145 each year or face stiff fines from the state. They may tell you that they pay that insurance but even if they are not lying to you it still wont help, after a review when the bill comes due the state fund will deny it because 1 you are not an employee but a contractor and 2 because no money was paid into the fund by your company(IE you), more than likely your personal insurance will deny the claim because it was not submitted with in their reporting deadline(usually 72 hours to 30 days) and you will be responsible for it all. You also can not legally claim unemployment at the end of the season while you are trying to get hired somewhere else because self employed are not eligible
The company liability and often vehicle insurance will deny all claims brought on due to sub contractors as well, which means that any damages you might cause are passed directly to you and your family. That's right you can personally get sued and lose everything unless you are carrying your own liability and legal insurance.
On a final fun note this practice is both illegal (check out the laws on subcontractor vs employee)and is in direct violation of the contract that this company has signed with the federal government, and you as a willing participant in this action (you took the money didn't you) may be barred from holding or participating in future contracts or being hired by any government agency if caught. (known as Suspension & Debarment )
Now you are down to a true figure of $153 a day with no liability or unemployment coverage and it couldn’t get any worse right?
Equipment rental fees are a deduction i've seen far too many times.If you have to pay a usage fee (not a deposit that is reimbursed, but a daily, weekly or seasonal deduction from your pay)on your fire shelter, PPE, pack or other equipment used to do your job then you are being swindled. Go ahead and deduct that from your daily earnings as well before you compare pay since most reputable companies do not charge their employees for tools and safety equipment that their contract requires them to have anyway.
The old bait and switch. They told you you could make up to $200 a day, did they tell you the least you could make or what the average they pay or everything you really had to do to get that much and is it even possible. I see a lot of hourly employees get this smoke and mirror trick. Remember 16 hour days are rare the average is 12 and they are often the ones doing the shift ticket and keeping the hours low. Are they paying you from the time they start giving orders and having work done or waiting til you get on the line? Remember if you are under orders or performing duties then you are at work and should be paid.These duties are things like prepping and stocking the truck each morning, going through inspection, and going to and from your home dispatch station
The gold plated turd is the best swindle of all. I hear companies (especially during busy seasons) that offer grand amounts to their employees to get them on board or to steal them from other employees. At the end of the day these promises are almost always lies. They end up dragging pay out and only pay a partial amount or just dont pay at all. These companies are never around for long but you are still stuck short when they dissolve their company or declare bankruptcy.
In the end remember to compare apples to apples to weigh your compensation. Look at the actual amount that you will end up with at the end of the season and when you will receive your pay as many companies do not pay their employees until after they are paid by the government(can be several months if paperwork errors occur) There are a lot of great companies out there, some that are even worth working for less daily pay at because the fringe benefits and business practices are better( that's right you've got to throw the extras that aren't cash in to your decision also). Remember though that there are also some slick operators just looking out for themselves as well.
I hope that this information has helped you. Too many great firefighters get burnt by company owners that are only looking out for themselves. Now that you know some of the methods, you should be able to start asking the right questions to get yourself the best pay for your level and abilities.