Reporter barred from Providence firefighter arbitration hearing

City officials and the firefighters' union met behind closed doors during their first arbitration hearing.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – After agreeing to allow a reporter to cover Wednesday’s high-profile arbitration hearing between the city of Providence and its firefighters, the arbitrator assigned to the case reneged on his decision just before the meeting began.

Lawyers for both the city of Providence and the firefighters’ union also said they would support opening their hearing to the public, but arbitrator Lawrence T. Holden Jr. said he changed his mind after consulting with the two parties.

Holden, who called a reporter Tuesday night to say he would keep the hearing open, said he was concerned about whether witnesses called in the matter would focus on the media rather than the facts in the case.

“In my 45 years of doing this, we haven’t [allowed reporters to attend],” Holden told

A Superior Court judge ruled in September that the city and the firefighters should go to arbitration to settle a dispute over how much the firefighters should be paid for the Elorza administration’s decision to change their schedule from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours.

The city is appealing that decision to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, but the high court said last week the grievance hearing could move forward while it considers the city’s broader argument.

Tuesday’s hearing was held at the East Providence offices of the American Arbitration Association, located on Warren Avenue. At least 10 representatives from the firefighters’ union as well as its lawyer, Ed Roy, sat on one side of the room while three city lawyers and the mayor’s chief of staff, Tony Simon, sat on the other.

Both sides said they expected Tuesday’s hearing to last much of the day. The hearings are expected to continue into 2016.

The city has repeatedly argued that it doesn’t believe a provision in the union’s 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. In August, the city moved from four platoons to three, which resulted in a 14-hour increase to the average work 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.

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

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 ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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