Mayors, firefighters clash over OT bill

The Senate Labor Committee discusses firefighter overtime legislation. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Depending on whom you ask, it’s either legislation that would put cities and towns on the brink of bankruptcy or a harmless bill designed to protect firefighters against unilateral changes to their shift schedules.

That was the message members of the Senate Labor Committee heard Tuesday as municipal leaders lined up to warn of the dire consequences of a bill that would require firefighters to earn time-and-a-half pay for working more than 42 hours in an average work week and union leaders argued the bill would add no additional costs to budgets in any communities across the state.

Either way, the so-called “overtime bill” has quickly become the most talked about legislation of the 2015 General Assembly session.

“It’s a shame that the lines of battle have to be drawn this way,” Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, the lead sponsor of the bill, said during the committee meeting.

Before taking testimony, Lombardi announced he was amending his legislation to calculate an average work week over an eight-week period to eliminate the possibility of firefighters earning overtime for shifts they traditionally have been paid straight time for.

“It is trying to make things status quo,” Lombardi told the committee.

But for the second time in a week, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee and mayors and town managers from across Rhode Island held a State House press conference to warn that members of the General Assembly would be crossing the line by passing a bill that would limit the municipal leaders’ ability to restructure their fire departments in an attempt to trim costs.

McKee went as far as saying he’s concerned lawmakers – including the sponsors of the bill in both the Senate and House – do not understand the legislation they’re considering. He said it was crafted as a response to rumors that Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza was seeking to require firefighters to work an additional 14 hours each week for no additional pay.

During the press conference, Elorza reiterated his position that his plan to move the Providence Fire Department from four platoons to three will come with a pay increase for firefighters asked to move from working 42 hours per week to 56 hours per week . He has said he does not want to negotiate in public, but acknowledged he considers deals reached in North Kingstown and Tiverton around similar restructuring efforts to be fair.

In North Kingstown, firefighters will receive a 33% pay increase over the life of their new contract and Tiverton firefighters will receive a 19% raise, according to Elorza. Both towns have moved to 56-hour work weeks as a result of switching to three platoons.

“The truth is firefighters are simply overreaching on this issue,” Elorza said. He warned the bill could add costs to the city’s already-bloated overtime budget. The city has paid firefighters an average of $9 million for overtime and callback annually since 2009.

While McKee, Elorza and other municipal leaders warned that the bill would affect negotiations with every fire union in the state, the legislation is largely viewed as a response to Elorza’s changes in Providence.

The Providence mayor ordered platoon changes to his fire department last month even though the city’s contract with its firefighters’ union doesn’t expire until June 30, 2017. While the state Supreme Court has ruled that platoon changes are a management right, it said implementation of the changes – meaning the pay rate – should be collectively bargained. The union has balked at agreeing to pay changes in the middle of an existing contract.

In the Senate Labor Committee hearing, Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, asked Elorza whether he’s considered hiring more firefighters to reduce overtime costs. As it stands now, there are 424 firefighters in the city, down nearly 100 from the maximum staffing level. Elorza said he believes the savings from hiring more employees would be “negligible.”

“The answer to resolving the overtime problem is not to hire more firefighters,” Elorza said.

Paul Valletta, president of the Cranston firefighters’ union and legislative representative for the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters, told the committee the bill “does not touch one present overtime budget” in cities and towns across the state. He said current collective bargaining agreements would not be interrupted by the legislation.

McKee, speaking on behalf of the municipalities, said he’s just as concerned with the long term impact of the legislation as he is its immediate effects. He stressed that the committee should think about more than Providence, which will likely have its changes settled by an arbitrator.

“It impacts negotiations down the line,” McKee said.

The bill, which was also heard in the House Labor Committee, was held for further study in both chambers Tuesday. The Senate Labor Committee has already scheduled a vote on the legislation for Thursday.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed said Tuesday she supports the legislation. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has not expressed direct support for the bill, but has indicated he believe firefighters should be paid more for working more hours.

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

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