Elorza administration appeals judge’s fire dept. ruling

Providence Firefighters' union president Paul Doughty and Mayor Jorge Elorza

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lawyers for the Elorza administration on Friday appealed a Superior Court judge’s ruling that the city and the firefighters’ union must go to grievance arbitration over the administration’s decision to overhaul the fire department.

The city has also asked Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear to put the brakes on a scheduled arbitration hearing in December while the R.I. Supreme Court considers the appeal.

“My administration is committed to providing the highest level of public safety for Providence taxpayers,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a statement. “Out-of-control overtime in the fire department is excessive and has cost the city millions while adding to our structural deficit. “

Lanphear ruled last month 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.

After Lanphear’s initial ruling, Elorza told reporters he was “excited” because it upheld the city’s arguments that platoon structures are a management right. But city lawyers still filed a motion to dismiss, telling Lanphear they believed they had more time to make the request. Lanphear called the city’s motion “an insult to the court.”

Reached Friday, Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, said it was “highly unusual and inappropriate” for the union to learn an appeal was filed from a reporter rather the city’s lawyers.

“This should put to rest the mayor’s uninformed legal opinion stating he is ‘very confident’ in his legal position,” Doughty said. “Rather, his ‘solid legal footing’ has now become a slippery slope with the taxpayers footing the bill on this fool’s errand.”

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 them for the 33% increase to their work week.

Instead, the administration elected to implement an 8% pay increase for the 14-hour increase 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 call back 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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