PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A day after Providence fell well below its mandatory minimum number of firefighters on duty in the city, Providence City Council President Luis Aponte said Sunday he hasn’t seen “any evidence of any coordinated work stoppage and action” by members of the department.
Instead, Aponte said, a complex set circumstances that includes a larger-than-normal number of injured firefighters as well as low overall staffing numbers converged Saturday night to leave the city with between 77 and 83 firefighters on duty for the night shift.
The union contract requires that 94 firefighters be on duty at all times. The city has around 350 firefighters spread across three platoons, but that includes members out with injuries or on vacation. When any platoon falls below 94 members, firefighters from other platoons are called back to work and paid a time-and-a-half rate.
“We’ve created a set of circumstances that require an experienced steady hand and I’m not sure that steady hand exists right now,” Aponte told WPRI.com.
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Aponte’s comments directly contradict the Elorza administration’s claims that it needed to “reshuffle resources” in the fire department Saturday night because certain firefighters engaged in a coordinated effort to not fill 11 vacancies.
State law prohibits firefighters from striking or engaging in any work stoppage or slowdown. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare has vowed to prosecute anyone caught engaging in a “coordinated work action.”
The Elorza administration also released a Nov. 1 Facebook post that appears to show a member of the fire department urging his colleagues to not volunteer to work on their days off. Pare said Sunday his investigation remains active.
The city did not close any fire stations Saturday night, but two fire engines and two ladder trucks were not staffed, according to Pare. He said the Sunday day shift had 91 firefighters on duty and the night shift was back to 94 members.
Pare confirmed that the city did not allow several firefighters to volunteer to work Saturday night because they would have worked too many consecutive hours. A provision in the union contract prohibits firefighters from working more than 38 straight hours, but that policy has rarely been enforced in recent years.
Pare also claimed that firefighters who were eligible to be called in Saturday night refused to work. Paul Doughty, the president of the firefighters’ union, accused the city of playing “Russian roulette with public safety.”
The union asked a Superior Court judge to immediately waive the 38-hour provision in the contract, but the request was denied Saturday.
Aponte said the 15-member City Council believes the communication of Saturday’s changes was “unacceptable,” noting that he wasn’t made aware of the staffing problem until 4:30 p.m. Other members of the council learned about the changes when they were contacted by WPRI.com.
He said he fears that the bitter dispute between the administration and the firefighters’ union is jeopardizing the possibility of the sides reaching a settlement over an ongoing lawsuit that could determine how much the city has to pay workers for going from working an average of 42 hours each week to an average of 56 hours each week.
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 union has said Providence could accomplish the same goal by hiring more firefighters.