Judge denies Providence’s request to suspend arbitration hearing in firefighter dispute

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Superior Court judge Tuesday denied the city of Providence’s request to suspend a December arbitration hearing with the firefighters’ union while the Supreme Court takes up an ongoing legal dispute between the two parties.

Judge Jeffrey a. Lanphear said he saw no reason stay the arbitration hearing scheduled for Dec. 16, a decision that came as no surprise to lawyers on either side. The city can still ask the Supreme Court to suspend the hearing. Lawrence Holden Jr. is the arbitrator in the case.

Lanphear ruled in September 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.

The city has already appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, but lawyers asked Lanphear to put the brakes on a previously scheduled arbitration to determine how much the firefighters should be paid for going from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours.

The city has repeatedly argued that it doesn’t believe that a provision in the union’s existing contract that calls for firefighters to work an average of 42 hours each week can supersede the public safety commissioner’s management right to require them to work more hours.

The union’s contract does not expire until June 30, 2017.

The union has said it agrees that the city can move forward with a three-platoon system, but firefighters should be paid a time-and-a-half rate for all hours worked after the average of 42 hours. When the city made the schedule change on Aug. 2, it gave the firefighters an 8% pay increase.

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.

Tuesday’s decision can be scored as another procedural victory for the union, but all sides acknowledge they have a long road ahead of them in the dispute.

The city can ask the Supreme Court to stay the arbitration hearing. If the high court denies the request, the city can appeal an arbitrator’s decision to both Superior Court and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will also make the ultimate decision on whether grievance arbitration is even applicable in the case.

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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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