Judge: Elorza, fire union dispute can go to arbitration

Mayor Jorge Elorza announced steps to address the city's structural deficit. (photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In the first significant development of what will likely be a lengthy legal battle, a Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that Providence’s firefighters are eligible to go to grievance arbitration over the Elorza administration’s changes to their work schedule.

Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear agreed that the city has the right to move from four fire platoons to three, but said the implementation of the new system – namely compensation – should be resolved through the grievance procedures laid out in the city’s existing collective bargaining agreement.

“There is no reason, nor any logic, to deviate from the express provisions of the contract now,” Lanphear wrote in his 10-page declaratory judgement.

In a statement, Elorza said he was “excited” the judge agreed that moving from four platoons to three is a management right, even though Lanphear’s decision states the union never questioned the city’s ability to make that change.

“On the procedural question, the judge decided that both parties must go to arbitration,” Elorza said. “I am confident that going forward, an arbitrator or judge will also agree that the city has the management right to restructure the fire department.”

In a separate interview, Elorza said the city is still considering whether to appeal the decision.

“I think this is an unabashed victory,” Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, told WPRI.com. “This was a reckless, ill-thought-out and now illegal process they engaged in.”

Although the contract with the union doesn’t expire until June 30, 2017, lawyers for the city have argued that it had the right to require firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours without having an agreement over how much to pay the workers for the 33% increase to their work week.

Instead, the administration elected to implement an 8% pay increase for the 14-hour increase to the work week when it moved ahead with the changes on Aug. 1.

The union has argued that its existing contract guarantees that its members should be paid time-and-a-half for every hour it works over 42 hours in a week, a policy that has been followed until Elorza made the changes.

City officials have dismissed criticism over the 56-hour work week, noting that most firefighters were already working more than 42 hours a week and receiving time-and-a-half for callback pay. Providence has spent an average of $9 million annually on callback since 2009.

By moving from four platoons to three, Elorza has said the city will have more breathing room to ensure that it has the contractually-required 94 firefighters on duty at all times before it needs to callback members of other platoons and pay them overtime for the extra hours. The firefighters’ union has said Providence could accomplish the same goal by hiring more firefighters.

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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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