Matthew Martinez loves his job as a paramedic at the Santa Fe Fire Department.

He grew up here and started his career with the department, and even when he lived in Albuquerque for a time, he was happy to make the commute. His shifts are long and sometimes grueling, but he sees purpose in helping other people. Once the usual 48 hours on duty are over, he finds joy in the four days off, when he gets to be a full-time dad.

But Martinez feels like he's being short-changed, like his commitment to public safety is being taken for granted.

That's because the city does not report 8.3% of the hours he works to the Public Employee Retirement Association.

It's a problem that the fire department and city finance staff say has existed since 2016 when the city changed the way it reports fire department hours to PERA, and it impacts anyone who works on a shift schedule. That includes most firefighters, paramedics, engineers, ambulance drivers and even battalion chiefs.

Moreover, SFR has learned that PERA officials and others believe the city could have fixed this problem years ago—an assertion the city denies.

What isn't disputed: If Martinez retired today, he would not receive the full pension the city promised him. Specifically, he would receive $3,615.43 less per year than someone working in an administrative position for the department earning the same annual pay as Martinez.

Over the course of 10 years, that would add up to a loss of $36,154.30 for the paramedic.

That's because employees such as Martinez work six-day rotations with one regular 48-hour shift and a four-day break in between. His shifts fall one day earlier each week, so the actual number of hours he works in a 14-day payroll period varies from 96 to 128 hours, whereas someone in administration who works 9 to 5 clocks in consistently at 80 hours every payroll period.

Matthew Martinez and Eric Gonzales chat with colleagues in a brief lull between calls
Matthew Martinez and Eric Gonzales chat with colleagues in a brief lull between calls | Leah Cantor

Fire Chief Paul Babcock confirms the situation, noting that two people of equal rank with the same annual income would have a disparity in their retirement funds, with "my shift employee … getting a less of a PERA retirement."

For example, the $92,000 annual salary for a battalion chief should result in an annual PERA pension of $64,474.20. But, because of the way the city reports hours, the shift position will get a pension of $59,103.85. Over 20 years, this adds up to a $107,402 difference.

The federal Fair Labor Salary Act defines a regular work week for firefighters at 53 hours, or 106 hours in a 14-day payroll period. Anything over that is considered overtime.

PERA does not offer benefits on overtime hours, and therein lies the rub.

Shift employees, who work irregular schedules that vary greatly per pay period, end up losing out—in the case of Martinez's 128-hour pay period, he's losing 22 hours' worth of benefits.

Martinez has repeatedly raised concerns about it to the Fire Department leadership, the union that represents him, city staff and PERA, but three years have gone by and the city has not come up with a solution.

The city says the root of the problem has to do with conflicting federal laws governing overtime and PERA rules about reporting.

"This is not just a city problem," city Human Resources Department Director Bernadette Salazar tells SFR, adding that other municipalities with fire departments across the state face similar issues.

Salazar, as well as finance staff and city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon, insist that the solution has to come from the Legislature and there's little the city can do on its own to fix the problem. Mayor Alan Webber listed statewide legislation on the topic on the city's legislative priority list for next session.

Yet Greg Trujillo, PERA's deputy executive director, tells SFR the city could have easily fixed the problem years ago.

Accounts from multiple sources who spoke with SFR suggest that disorganization, confusion and lack of communication between city departments is the true explanation for why the problem has dragged on.

Martinez has grown increasingly frustrated.

"The city hasn't given this problem the attention that it needs to be resolved," he tells SFR.

Now, though, Martinez's efforts may be paying off. Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler intends to introduce a resolution to the City Council pledging to find a solution, and other councilors have quickly voiced support.

Vigil Coppler, who spent years working in human resources departments for Santa Fe and other cities, explains an easy fix: Change the technical details of how firefighter hours are documented.

"We figured out a way to report it. In fact, PERA has been telling the city of this solution for a while," she says. "But our city is undergoing a payroll system change right now. This would be an ideal time to convert some of our fields to make it easier to get these firefighter hours reported to PERA."

Trujillo, at PERA, agrees.

"We have provided the city options on how the city can make that happen," he says. "The city and the firefighters just need to get on the same page and pass a resolution. We have provided guidance but we can't force them to make the necessary changes."

Vigil Coppler plans to introduce a resolution to make this a permanent part of the procedure for reporting hours.

"Our firefighters are our first responders," she says. "… They show up and do their jobs and we need them and we need to recognize them for that."