Legal wrangling over Providence fire dept. overhaul continues

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As they wait for a judge to decide whether the worker compensation changes included in Providence’s fire department overhaul should go to arbitration, lawyers for the Elorza administration and firefighters’ union have spent the week making the case why each is on the right side of the law.

In court documents filed this week, the union once again outlined the reasons it believes Judge Jeffrey Lanphear should ask an arbitrator to decide how much firefighters should be paid for going from working an average of 42 hours each week to an average of 56 hours, a change Mayor Jorge Elorza has already implemented.

Meanwhile the city continues to argue that its department changes are not arbitrable, in part because the state Supreme Court has ruled that changing fire platoon structures is a management right. As part of his changes, Elorza applied an 8% across-the-board pay increase for the 33% increase to the work week for firefighters.

Both sides agree that Elorza has the right to move from four platoons to three, but the current legal dispute revolves around what to pay the firefighters.

Elorza announced his plan to restructure the department in May, but said he hoped to negotiate a deal with the union before he moved forward with the changes. The union, citing a collective bargaining agreement that runs until June 30, 2017, turned down several offers made by the mayor. The department changes took effect – without an agreement – this week.

In June, the union asked Lanphear to send the matter to arbitration and issue a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Elorza’s changes until a deal could be reached. Lanphear denied the request for a restraining order this week, but said he is still considering sending both sides to arbitration. He scheduled a status conference for Aug. 12.

In a subsequent filing this week, the union argued that because the existing contract calls for firefighters to work an average of 42 hours per week, it has the right to file a grievance now that the city is requiring them to work 14 additional hours.

There are two types of arbitration Lanphear could consider in the case.

The firefighters have argued that the matter should be sent to grievance arbitration, which would consist of the arbitrator basing his ruling solely on the language in the collective bargaining agreement. Lanphear could also order the sides to interest arbitration, which focuses on setting the terms of a union contract.

In a filing this week, the city argued that unresolved issues in managerial decisions – like the platoon changes – are subject to interest arbitration only. The city said the firefighters have waived their right to interest arbitration because the union didn’t request to go to arbitration in a timely manner.

Notably absent from the city’s most recent filing was the argument that the current collective bargaining is invalid because its length violates state law.

Last week, the city said it believed the two sides shouldn’t be forced into arbitration in part because it didn’t believe the contract was legal. In response, the union asked the court to vacate the city’s landmark 2013 pension settlement because it was tied to the collective bargaining agreement.

Evan England, a spokesman for Elorza, said Thursday the city stands by its previous argument. Paul Doughty, the union president, said “it’s not happenstance” that the city did not include the invalid contract argument in its latest filing.

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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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