Providence agrees to pay firefighters $5.9M to end OT disputes

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The city of Providence will pay its firefighters nearly $6 million to settle multiple legal disputes regarding overtime payments filed over the last several years, Eyewitness News has learned.

The deal must be approved by the majority of the members of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters as well as judges in Rhode Island Superior Court and the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. It would pay active firefighters – and some recent retirees – $5.9 million in two installments by July 1, according to a spokesperson for the city.

The agreement settles a lawsuit filed by the firefighters’ union over the amount its members should be paid for Mayor Jorge Elorza’s short-lived department shift change, as well as a separate suit dating back to 2013 that accused the city of violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) when calculating overtime. (The city’s police union has also filed suit against the city related to the FLSA, but the two sides have not reached an agreement.)

If approved, the firefighters would also drop 16 grievances related to the shift change, according to a copy of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) provided by the city. The funds will be divided up by the firefighters based on the amount of overtime they worked. None of the payments can count toward a worker’s pension, according to the MOU.

The agreement states the city and the union “acknowledge and agree that it is in their best interests to avoid the costs and uncertainty involved in litigation,” with the city denying “any wrongdoing or liability in connection with both the reorganization and the FLSA action.”

The deal does not require City Council approval, although council members were briefed on the terms of the agreement Friday. The firefighters’ union is expected to vote on the settlement by the end of the month.

If all goes as planned, the agreement would finally close the book on a conflict that has dominated Elorza’s first three years in office.

By the end of the Democratic mayor’s fourth month in City Hall, he had announced plans to restructure the fire department from four platoon shifts to three, a change he claimed would eventually save the city $5 million a year in overtime costs.

Elorza’s plan required firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours, and it prompted more than 100 retirements in the department, leading to an increase in overtime spending. (A provision in the union contract required 94 firefighters to be on duty at all times.)

The union sued the city over the changes, arguing that its members should be paid time-and-a-half for each hour they worked after 42 hours in a week; the city unilaterally gave the firefighters an 8% pay increase and did pay time-and-a-half after 53 hours, which is required under federal law. A Superior Court judge ordered the case to grievance arbitration.

The two sides ultimately agreed on a five-year contract that lowered the minimum manning requirement from 94 firefighters to 88, but also allowed the firefighters to go back to working an average of 42 hours per week. But the new contract didn’t settle the dispute over how much the firefighters should have been paid during the shift change.

The new agreement will pay firefighters approximately $2.8 million to settle the shift change dispute and just over $3.1 million for the FLSA lawsuit.

The FLSA action was filed in 2013, before Elorza took office, but the union argued that his administration continued the city’s practice of not including negotiated longevity payments when calculating overtime amounts. City officials have long acknowledged they would have to pay firefighters in the FLSA case, but the projected amounts varied. The city has also agreed to pay the attorney fees related to the FLSA case for the union’s lawyer, Ed Roy.

Aside from the $5.9 million firefighters will receive, the city has also agreed to provide a 64-hour bank of paid leave to each active firefighter, although the union agreed that its members won’t use their new hours if their absence forces the city to pay time-and-a-half to replace them.

The new agreement took shape over the last year after the two sides reached a deal on the new union contract. Frank Williams, the former chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, mediated the dispute, just as he did with the collective bargaining agreement.

In the unlikely scenario that the courts strike down one or more provisions in the deal, the rest of the agreement would remain in place, according to the MOU. The pact also states that neither side “shall disparage the other regarding any matter arising out of or otherwise relating to this agreement.”

It was not immediately clear how much firefighters would have received had they proceeded with either of their lawsuits, although the city’s internal auditor projected the dispute over the shift change could cost the city more than $10 million. Elorza’s aides always maintained the total would be lower, but the mayor did not include any money for a potential settlement in his budget for the current fiscal year.

By splitting the payments over the two fiscal years, the fiscal impact of the agreement will likely be easier to manage for the city.

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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