In federal lawsuit, Providence firefighters claim city violated Family Leave law

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence firefighters’ union filed suit against the city Friday, charging that Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare has repeatedly failed to comply with the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) since the city overhauled the fire department in August.

In the suit, Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters claims the city’s disciplinary actions against at least seven firefighters were a violation of federal law, which allows workers to take time off following the birth of a child; the adoption of a child or their placement in foster care; the care of spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition; or when the employee has a serious health condition.

“The city is disciplining firefighters who are taking sick leave to take care of their family,” said union president Paul Doughty in an interview with Eyewitness News. “They’ve received a two day suspension that’s being held in abeyance,” he said, which means the firefighters have not actually served the suspension.

“They have been disciplined for taking sick leave to care for themselves and their family,” Doughty continued. “And in some cases, to care for a newborn. All in violation of the Act.”

The union is asking the court to order the city to halt its discipline and seeking unspecified damages. Doughty said he believes the suit could go to trial, because he claims the city refused to address the issue outside of court.

“Our experience in trying to talk to them–and we did talk to them to try and resolve this before we filed the lawsuit–has really fallen on deaf ears,” Doughty said.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Jorge Elorza declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

The lawsuit marks the latest twist in a months-long legal battle between the union and the city, which stems from the Elorza administration’s decision to reorganize the fire department Aug. 2.

The two sides are in a dispute over how much firefighters should be paid for Elorza’s decision to move the fire department from four platoons to three, which required firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours per week.

The change, Elorza has said, would ultimately allow Providence to save $5 million a year because the city would be able to meet the contractually-required 94 workers on duty at all times without having to bring in firefighters from other platoons and pay overtime for the extra hours. Those savings have not been realized in the current fiscal year.

The union contends that while the platoon changes are considered a management right, the current contract with the city calls for firefighters to be paid overtime for working more than 42 hours in a week. The Elorza administration gave them an 8% pay increase for the 14 hours that were tacked on to the schedule.

The two sides are currently in arbitration over how much the firefighter will be paid moving forward, but the city has also asked the state Supreme Court to declare that they shouldn’t be in arbitration at all. Elorza has said he is hopeful a settlement can be reached.

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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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