Wages increased for city staff earning under $20 an hour

The hike will impact Oak Harbor Fire Department’s 26 paid on-call firefighters, which will soon increase to 32.

Oak Harbor’s paid on-call firefighters are the big winners as city officials move toward a $20-an-hour minimum wage for city employees.

Oak Harbor Fire Department’s 26 paid on-call firefighters, which will soon increase to 32, will see their hourly wages rise from the current $14.49 minimum wage to $20 an hour in May. With a cost of living adjustment, the hourly wage will increase to $20.40 a year in January 2023. The increase will cost the fire department an extra $120,000 a year.

In addition, seasonal laborers and program assistants in public works and the marina will also receive hourly wage increases to $19.90 an hour, which will be $20.30 an hour with the upcoming cost-of-living adjustment. Human Resources Director Emma House said public works and the marina will be able to absorb the cost of the wage hikes in their current budgets.

The Oak Harbor City Council unanimously adopted the pay increases during the Tuesday night meeting. The city administration presented the proposal in response to the Island County commissioners’ decision in January to set a $20 minimum wage for county employees after realizing that fast-food restaurants were paying more than they were.

The commissioners’ new policy raised wages for 35 people. The Port of South Whidbey also followed the example.

At the time, city officials told the Whidbey News-Times that they would look into the issue and possibly present a proposal to the council.

The proposal adopted Tuesday doesn’t include a new policy but raised wages for the specific positions with wages under $20 an hour.

When questioned about the pay increases, Fire Chief Ray Merrill said he had mixed emotions. He pointed out that the department has big plans for the next few years — including a second facility — that will require additional career staff. At the same time, he said the paid on-call staff deserves every penny the city can spare.

“As long as it does not negatively impact the hiring of additional career personnel, I am 100% in favor of it,” he said.

Councilmember Jim Woessner said he was initially shocked to learn that paid on-call staff was receiving minimum wage.

“We are only paying them that much to run into a burning building?” he said. “Holy cow, we need to give them some more money.”

But on further reflection, Woessner said he realized that the positions have a “quid pro quo” element in which the firefighters receive valuable training in exchange for a modest wage. Merrill said he considers the department to be a training ground for firefighters who can go on to get career jobs elsewhere.

Councilmember Tara Hizon was in favor of the increases and said the fact that firefighters were being paid minimum wage has long been a source of embarrassment for her. She said a higher wage may encourage the staff to respond to more calls and so the city may need fewer paid on-call firefighters.