RI State Police troopers win 10% pay hike in contract fight

Total cost of arbitration award estimated at $4 million by state officials

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The union that represents Rhode Island State Police officers has won an arbitration fight that state officials estimate may cost about $4 million to cover back wages and other additional compensation.

The Raimondo administration confirmed Monday that an interest-arbitration panel rendered a decision July 7 in a case brought by the Rhode Island Troopers Association after it was unable to reach a contract with the state for the period of May 1, 2013, to April 30, 2016. That process is authorized by the State Police Arbitration Act, a 1979 state law.

The biggest win for the troopers in the arbitration award is a 10% bump in salary to cover the past three years, consisting of retroactive hikes of 3.5% as of May 1, 2013; 3% as of May 1, 2014; and 3.5% as of May 1, 2015.

The first two figures matched those proposed by the troopers, while the third was lower than the 5.5% they proposed; by contrast, the state only offered bumps of 1%, 1% and 1.5%, respectively, or 3.5% total.

The three-member arbitration panel said it “was persuaded that troopers’ salaries needed an upward adjustment, particularly in order to better align their salaries with those of troopers in the surrounding communities of Massachusetts and Connecticut, with whom Rhode Island troopers most regularly interoperate.”

The cost of the 10% salary increase, including back pay, will total $2.75 million, state officials said. By contrast, they noted, state employees received a 6% salary increase over the same period.

In a statement, R.I. Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase expressed his unhappiness with the arbitrators’ final ruling.

“The panel’s decision, particularly on wages, is disappointing especially in the context of our ongoing budget challenges,” he said. “The arbitrator’s ruling will require the state to find additional savings within the State Police and public safety budgets to make up for these personnel increases.”

However, DiBiase indicated the state will not appeal the arbitration decision. “We are committed to fulfilling this obligation, while finding ways to run the department more efficiently,” he said.

R.I. State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell said Monday he has secured permission from the U.S. Department of Justice to take about $3.5 million forfeited as part of the 2012 Google settlement and use it to cover a significant portion of the arbitration award.

The arbitration panel also ruled that detectives will receive overtime pay rather than compensatory time for working more than 42 hours a week, which officials said could cost an estimated $350,000 depending on how much is used, plus $850,000 to cash out comp time granted previously.

Each trooper will also receive a $500 stipend for an electronic device next January, costing the state an estimated $110,000. Although the panel agreed to add the device stipend, it noted that Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire and Massachusetts do not provide such a payment. The Troopers Association had asked for $1,500.

The arbitration award also made changes to the rules on personal days for troopers.

It wasn’t a total win for the Troopers Association, however; the arbitration panel denied five of its 10 requests, including its proposal that troopers should get money instead of comp time during state emergencies and stipends for re-enlistments and special units.

The average trooper earned $111,670 under the terms of the previous contract, according to the state.

The three arbitrators on the panel were Vincent F. Ragosta Jr. as the chair and neutral arbitrator; Anthony A. Giannini Jr. as the arbitrator designated by the Troopers Association; and Melanie Marcaccio as the arbitrator designated by the state.

The three-member panel rejected the Troopers Association’s argument that its members should not have their compensation compared to that of other state workers.

“Although the panel recognized that troopers have certain unique responsibilities amongst State employees, they are still State employees,” the panel wrote in its decision, noting that the General Assembly has specifically said comparisons should be used in determining fair wages and benefits for them.

The panel added that Colonel O’Donnell may also be due for a raise, noting that he wears two hats as Rhode Island’s state police superintendent and its director of public safety, earning $148,937 for the combined job. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, the two jobs are split and pay as much as $216,184 in the case of Massachusetts’ state police chief.

“Perhaps it is time for Colonel O’Donnell to have his annual salary augmented to at least be more closely aligned with his bordering counterparts,” the panel wrote.

Rhode Island’s state troopers first unionized in the late 1960s as part of the Fraternal Order of Police, according to a departmental history. They left the FOP in 1997 to form the Troopers Association, an affiliate of the National Troopers Coalition.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

Tim White contributed to this report.

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