Elorza: I’ve offered firefighters a pay increase

Union boss calls offer 'insulting'

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said Monday he has offered to increase firefighter wages as part of his plan to restructure the city’s fire department, but the president of the union called the mayor’s offer “insulting.”

Elorza declined to say the amount he wants to pay firefighters for increasing their average weekly work schedule from 42 hours to 56 hours, but suggested he considered similar deals struck in the towns of North Kingstown and Tiverton to be “fair.”

“I look forward to sitting down at the table and coming up with an increase in their pay that’s fair for the amount of hours that they work and will work,” Elorza said. “This notion that they’re being asked to work more hours and not get paid is entirely false.”

The mayor’s comments came during a 45-minute meeting with reporters Monday designed to explain why he opposes state legislation that would require firefighters be paid time-and-a-half for working more than 42 hours during a seven-day work week. Elorza claims the bill could add nearly $1.5 million to the city’s already-bloated overtime budget.

Elorza was joined at the meeting by Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and lawyer Tim Cavazza, who is working with the city on firefighter-related matters. Cavazza represented North Kingstown as part of the town’s effort to restructure its fire department.

Elorza said he plans to join other municipal leaders Tuesday to testify against the overtime legislation at a State House hearing. He predicted that once lawmakers “come to understand how crippling and overreaching this bill is,” the General Assembly won’t approve it.

While Elorza fights the overtime bill – as well as another piece of legislation that would add platoon structures to matters that can be collectively bargained with unions – he is locked in a heated battle with his own fire union.

Last month the mayor announced plans to shift Providence from four fire platoons to the three, a policy that would require firefighters increase their work schedules from 42 hours per week to 56 hours per week. While Elorza maintains he wants to reach an agreement on a pay increase, he sent a letter informing the union that he intends to implement the changes on July 1 even if a deal is not in place.

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 just six have to be absent from work before members of other platoons are called in, earning overtime, or callback pay. The union contends that the city should simply hire more firefighters to prevent paying extra callback time.

Elorza contends that his three-platoon proposal could nearly eliminate the need for callback pay, which has cost the city between $7.6 million and $11.9 million a year since 2009.

Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, said Monday Elorza has offered his members a 5% pay increase for working an extra 14 hours each week. He had previously complained that the mayor doesn’t want to pay firefighters anything extra, citing the mayor’s letter about making changes on July 1. He called the proposal “absurd.”

“The offer he has made is insulting,” Doughty told WPRI.com. “He’s demanded that we work 33% more hours and so far he’s offered 5%. It’s less than half of what Rhode Island state law requires for minimum wage.”

Elorza said he considers new collecting bargaining agreements negotiated in other communities that have restructured their fire departments as “fair.” He said North Kingstown firefighters will receive a 33% pay increase over the course of several years. Tiverton’s firefighters will receive a 19% increase over three years, according to the mayor.

But Doughty noted that unlike North Kingstown and Tiverton, the Providence fire union has an active collective bargaining agreement that doesn’t expire until June 30, 2017.

Doughty estimates that a 33% pay increase would cost the city an additional $8 million each year and would allow firefighters to boost their pension benefits significantly when they retire; as it stands now, overtime payments are not considered when pensions are calculated. A spokesman for the mayor said the city has factored in increased pension costs as part of its proposal.

“He’s negotiating with a loaded gun and he doesn’t know how to use it,” 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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