12 key things to know about Providence’s proposed firefighter deal

providence fire dept

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The dispute between Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and the city’s firefighters’ union is finally nearing a resolution as the two sides have signed off on a tentative agreement for a new contract.

So what exactly is included in the proposed five-year contract?

Here’s an overview.

Minimum manning goes from 94 to 88.
Let’s flash back to April 2015, before Mayor Elorza announced his plans to overhaul the fire department. The city had about 400 firefighters split across four platoons. The existing union contract requires that 94 firefighters be on duty at all times, a provision known as minimum manning. With roughly 100 firefighters per platoon, that meant that every time more than six members of a platoon were sick, injured or on vacation, someone from another platoon was called back to work and paid time-and-a-half. If the new deal is approved, that minimum manning number will drop to 88 firefighters on Nov. 12, which should ultimately curb some of that callback overtime. (It’s important to note, though, that those savings are unlikely to be achieved right away. There are currently around 340 firefighters, so the department remains severely understaffed. But a new class of 80 members is expected to be brought on some time in 2017, which should lead to less overtime.)

The city is going back to four platoons, but schedules are changing.
Think of this as what the firefighters get for agreeing to a reduction in minimum manning. The mayor’s department overhaul required firefighters to go from four platoons to three, and work two 10-hour days, two 14-hour nights followed by two days off, a schedule no other department in the country uses. (That worked out to an average of 56 hours per week over the course of a month.) Under the new contract, the department will go back to four platoons and firefighters will work a 24-hour shift followed by 48 hours off followed by 24 hours on and then have 96 hours off. (This works out to an average of 42 hours per week over the course of a month.) This is the same schedule the Boston Fire Department uses.

The city claims the deal will save nearly $15 million.
In a fiscal note provided to the City Council last week, the administration claimed the deal saves $14.7 million, even though it includes $10.4 million in wage increases (see below). The largest portion of the savings comes from the reduction in minimum manning and increased health co-shares for existing employees and future retirees.

The city is basically giving up a major management right.
One of the reasons the entire battle between the administration and the firefighters started was that city lawyers believed they would have legal problems if they tried to reduce minimum manning in the middle of a contract. They argued that changing the platoon structure was a better path because schedules are considered a management right. Under the new contract, the city still has the ability to cut a platoon, but it would be required to immediately pay a year’s salary to each firefighter affected by the change. The new contract also gives the city the ability to end the Boston schedule by Nov. 1, 2017, but if it does, the department would go to two 10-hour days, two 14-hour nights followed by four days off.

East Side fire stations will see some changes.
Both city and union officials say no fire stations will be closing in the near future, but the ones on Humboldt Avenue and Rochambeau Avenue will each lose an engine truck, and a ladder truck at the North Main Street station is being eliminated. The idea is that there are far fewer fires on the East Side compared with the rest of the city, so the cuts aren’t expected to affect public safety.

Firefighters are getting raises each year of the contract.
The deal gives union members a 2% pay increase on Jan. 1, 2017, another 2% raise on July 1, 2017, two consecutive 2.25% increases in 2018 and 2019, a 2.75% increase in 2020 and a 3.25% raise in 2021. All told, the raises are expected to cost the city $10.4 million over the life of the deal. Once the schedule goes back to four platoons on Nov. 12, the 8% increase Mayor Elorza gave the firefighters when he overhauled the department will be eliminated.

There is a lot more clarity in the new contract.
If you ask members of the City Council what frustrates them most about union contracts, there’s a good chance they’ll say it’s some of the gimmicks that get included in the deals. For example, past contracts have been littered with sunset provisions that made short-term changes to minimum manning or the holiday schedule, but didn’t make the changes permanent. None of that is included in the proposed agreement. Similarly, wage reopeners and parity clauses that allow unions to receive pay increases equal to what members of other city unions are receiving have also been eliminated.

There are no pension changes in the deal.
This is a big point of contention with City Council Finance Committee John Igliozzi. From his perspective, the agreement should include provisions that require new firefighters to pay more into the pension system, work longer before they’re eligible for a pension, and then receive a smaller pension once they retire. The truth is, those changes wouldn’t dramatically reduce the city’s $900-million unfunded pension liability because the vast majority of that money is committed to existing retirees, but no one disagrees that it would be beneficial down the line. Igliozzi maintains that a five-year contract should include changes to the pension system – especially with 80 new firefighters coming into the mix. But state law doesn’t appear to require that changes be made.

Retirees will have to contribute toward their health care.
For the first time, any new retiree is going to be required to pay a health co-share that equals half of their co-share at the time of retirement. Basically, if a firefighter is paying $4,055 a year on the job, they’ll pay $2,027.50 when they retire. Once they become eligible for Medicare, the co-share will be reduced by whatever they pay for Medicare Part B. This is significant. It doesn’t apply to existing retirees, but with nearly half of the department eligible to retire, the city should start to see savings in the near future.

Firefighters can trade overtime for compensation time.
The fire department will implement a new comp time policy that allows union members to accrue up to 72 hours in lieu of being paid overtime. (The comp time is accrued at a time-and-half rate, so if a firefighter works 48 hours of overtime, he or she would be eligible for 72 hours in time off.) The policy does not allow firefighters to earn comp time if it results in callback overtime for another member.

There are still major unresolved issues between the city and firefighters.
There was some hope that the administration and the union could reach a “global settlement” that would cover both a new contract as well as every grievance the union has filed over the last year, but that didn’t happen. So even if the two sides move forward with a new five-year contract, we still don’t know how much the city is going to owe the firefighters for requiring them to work an average of 56 hours per week since last year. Both sides agreed the city will be required to pay something, but the numbers vary greatly. The administration is hoping the figure will be minimal. The City Council has warned that it could be well over $10 million. (Although it’s possible an arbitrator will eventually make this determination, it’s still possible for a settlement to be reached.) Similarly, a years-long Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit involving overtime payment calculations for both police officers and firefighters is outstanding.

The deal still has several hurdles to cross.
The firefighters’ union started an eight-day review period Wednesday morning and will likely schedule a membership vote sometime in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the City Council Finance Committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on its end. That meeting could come as soon as next week. Once approved by the committee, it will need to be approved twice by the full City Council before it is signed into law by the mayor.

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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