Elorza: Public safety overtime legislation is ‘overreaching’

Providence Firefighters' union president Paul Doughty and Mayor Jorge Elorza

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said Thursday legislation that would require Rhode Island firefighters to be paid overtime for working more than 42 hours in a week would have dire consequences for cities and towns across the state.

In a letter to House and Senate leadership, Elorza explained that the bill could increase overtime costs for the capital city, in part by redefining a firefighter’s work week while also allowing vacation, sick and unpaid leaves of absence “to be counted as regular hours toward overtime requirements.”

“The fire union’s proposed legislation writes a huge loophole into the state’s existing labor law that will cost cities and towns millions – forcing us to raise taxes on residents and businesses, and seriously undermining our ability to make key investments and grow our economy,” Elorza wrote in the letter.

The legislation, which would also require that all police officers be paid overtime for working more than 40 hours in a week, is sponsored in the House by Majority Whip Jay Edwards, D-Portsmouth, and in the Senate by Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston. The Senate version of the bill is cosponsored by Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and Sens. Maryellen Goodwin, Paul Jabour and Frank Ciccone, all Democrats from Providence.

In a sit-down interview Thursday, Elorza conceded that the bill might not affect Providence until after its collective bargaining agreement with the city firefighters’ union ends in 2017, but said it certainly “strengthens their bargaining position once we get to a new contract.” He said the legislation is “overreaching.”

As it stands now, firefighters in Providence work two 10-hour days followed by two 14-hour nights before having four days off. The mayor’s interpretation of the bill is that under that scenario, firefighters would be paid six hours of overtime they weren’t previously entitled to in two out of every three weeks. He said that would tack on about $1.5 million in additional overtime costs each year.

“Either way, it’s just damaging and hurtful,” Elorza said. “If the $1.5 million of extra costs don’t accrue immediately, they’ll accrue [when the contract expires] because [the union] will have the bargaining chips at the negotiation table.”

In his letter, Elorza cited a report published by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) that found Rhode Island has the highest per-capita cost of fire services in the country.

The mayor’s concerns come as he is attempting the restructure his city’s fire department by moving from four platoons to three, a policy that would require firefighters to work 56 hours each week, up from 42 hours. He said that would nearly erase the $5 million the city budgets each year for callback time because it would grow each platoon to 133 members.

Under the city’s current four-platoon system, there are only 100 members on each platoon. Because the fire union contract requires 94 firefighters on duty at all times, that means only six have to be absent from work before members of other platoons are called in, earning overtime pay. The union contends that the city should simply hire more firefighters to prevent paying extra callback time.

Elorza said he considers the overtime bill “far worse” than legislation that would add firefighter platoon structures to matters that can be collectively bargained as part of union contracts. Currently platoon structures are considered a management right.

Reached Thursday, Paul Doughty, president of the city firefighters’ union, said Elorza’s letter was “full of hyperbole and scare tactics.”

“This is a last-resort tactic,” Doughty said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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