PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A day before he announced plans to unilaterally overhaul the Providence Fire Department, Mayor Jorge Elorza told a group of firefighters any changes to their work schedules would need to be collectively bargained, WPRI.com has learned.
In a secretly recorded conversation between Elorza and the firefighters, the mayor indicated that he was closely monitoring state legislation that would require platoon or shift schedules to be part of union negotiations, a bill he has since said he opposes.
When asked if he was considering the “personnel side” of any fire department changes, Elorza said “it has to be done in a way that doesn’t compromise safety and as it currently stands, in terms of the change to the work schedule, that all has to be collectively bargained. So that can’t be unilaterally imposed.”
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The 10-minute recording obtained by WPRI.com is from a meeting that occurred on Tuesday, May 19, at the Messer Street fire station. The recording begins when Elorza is asked a question about the legislation. The group goes on to discuss other concerns members have regarding possible changes.
Elorza confirmed he ate dinner with several firefighters that evening. Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, declined to identify the names of any firefighters present at the meeting, but did confirm he was aware of Elorza’s comments.
“I think it’s a hard way to start negotiations,” Doughty said. “There’s really no polite way to put it. He was dishonest, disingenuous and duplicitous.”
Doughty: Mayor ‘unilaterally implemented that shift change’
On May 20, a day after the recording was made, Elorza met with Doughty to explain he was ordering the fire department to shift from four platoons to three, a decision that would require firefighters to work an average of 56 hours each week, well over the 42 hours outlined in the current union contract. Each platoon currently has about 100 firefighters; the changes would increase that figure to about 133 per platoon.
Elorza contends the platoon reduction could ultimately save the city $5 million a year because it would nearly eliminate the need for the city to call in members from other platoons to cover the shifts of absent employees. A provision in the current union contract requires 94 firefighters to be on duty at all times, meaning that if more than six members of any platoon call out, members of other platoons are called in to work extra shifts, earning overtime pay.
In a letter to Doughty on May 20, Elorza said he would delay implementation of the order so the two could negotiate an agreement, but he made it clear he would force the changes if a deal could not be reached by June 30.
“For the mayor to characterize these as negotiations, as good-faith bargaining, it’s anything but,” Doughty said in an interview Monday. “He unilaterally implemented that shift change and then suspended it temporarily while we can decide how deep we want him to cut us.”
Elorza: I still want to negotiate
For his part, Elorza maintains that he has always been honest about his intentions with the union. He said his recorded comments to the firefighters are consistent with his public statements on the issue.
“What I told them privately, what I’ve been saying publicly and what we’ve actually been doing, sitting down at the negotiation table, is that [in] implementing these changes, the law says I have to collectively bargain and that’s what I’ve been doing and that’s what I’m committed to doing,” Elorza said during an interview Monday.
When pressed on why he made the order unilaterally and then said he plans to implement the changes even if a deal is not reached with the union, Elorza would only say he remains hopeful that the two sides can reach an agreement.
“Now if collective bargaining fails, there are steps the city has to take and that I will take,” Elorza said. “But that’s the last case.”
The mayor said the dispute between his office and the union revolves primarily around overtime pay. The union maintains that Elorza still hasn’t showed how he’ll achieve $5 million in savings if firefighters are going to be compensated for working an additional 14 hours each week.
“What it comes down to is there is no entitlement to overtime,” Elorza said. “It’s costing the city anywhere from $7.5 million to $10 million a year. This is unsustainable and unfair to taxpayers.”
Elorza is expected to join Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee and other municipal leaders for a press conference at the State House Tuesday morning to discuss fire department staffing. The group is expected to again publicly oppose legislation they say would strip mayors and town managers of their ability to trim costs in their communities.
Doughty said his union isn’t backing down from its spat with Elorza. He said the audio recording shows the mayor has not been honest when it comes to his intentions on restructuring the department.
“It sends a very poor message to business leaders, potential developers and other lawmakers that this is a man that says one thing and does another,” Doughty said.