Elorza, fire union brace for showdown over platoon changes

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Elorza administration and the city’s firefighters’ union are bracing for a bitter public showdown as the mayor’s office continues to push a fire department restructuring plan it says could save the city millions of dollars each year, the union dares Elorza to break their contract and both sides rely on a tangled web of assumptions to make their cases.

What is clear, according to both Elorza and the union, is that a state Supreme Court decision issued in January allows municipalities to change a fire department platoon structure to require firefighters to work up to 14 additional hours each week.

More obscure are the details surrounding the implementation of those changes, namely pay structure. Elorza said Tuesday he wants to negotiate terms of his plan with the union in the coming months. In a separate interview, Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, said his members expect to be paid time-and-a-half for each hour they work beyond the 42 hours a week spelled out in their existing contract.

“Why would I negotiate less than I have now?” Doughty said. “I’m not going to reward bad behavior.”

As Doughty tells it, firefighters in Providence have been paid overtime for working more than 42 hours in a week for at least 40 years. He contends that the current collective bargaining agreement, which doesn’t expire until June 30, 2017, gives the union no reason to concede any overtime pay. And without those concessions, Doughty said, none of the $5 million Elorza says he can save will be realized.

“We think this is going to cost him more,” Doughty said.City spends millions of dollars on callback pay

To understand the mayor’s position, you first have to understand how callback works.

As it stands now, the city’s fire department has four platoons, with each platoon carrying roughly 100 firefighters. City law requires at least 94 firefighters to be on duty at all times. That means that if more than six members of a platoon call out sick or are on vacation, other firefighters must be called back to ensure the platoon has 94 active members on duty. Anyone called back to work more than their standard 42 hours a week is paid time-and-half.

So how often does the city find itself needing to call back firefighters?

Of 756 shifts worked between May 2014 and May 2015, all but six required at least one firefighter to be called back, according to data provided by the city. On average, each platoon has 23 members out of work on a given day. The city has spent between $7.6 million and $11.9 million on callback pay each year since 2009. For the current fiscal year that ends June 30, the city projects it will have spent $7.5 million.

“That’s not the way overtime was designed to be used,” Elorza said.

The mayor’s solution is to cut an entire platoon, a decision that would grow each platoon from 100 members to approximately 133 members. As he sees it, growing the number of firefighters on each platoon would virtually eliminate the need for callback time. But implementing the change also means requiring workers to shift from a 42-hour work week to a 56-hour work week. He said he does not anticipate layoffs to be part of his plan.

Elorza conceded that asking the firefighters to add 14 hours to their traditional work week would likely require a raise in base pay, but he was unwilling to say how much he intends to offer. He acknowledged that the $5 million he claims he can save is essentially the amount set aside for callback time in his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015. He said he doesn’t expect full savings to be realized until at least the 2016-17 fiscal year.

While he has already ordered the platoon changes, Elorza has asked Chief Clarence Cunha to hold off on immediately changing shift schedules. He said he remains committed to sitting down with Doughty because “this is about the implementation of the effects of the decision.”Providence fire contract doesn’t expire until 2017

Elorza’s situation in Providence is slightly different than two other Rhode Island communities that have recently switched from four platoons to three.

In January, Supreme Court Associate Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia ruled that North Kingstown could implement a 56-hour work week for firefighters, overturning a Superior Court decision that sided with the fire union in that town. But Indeglia also said the town must “bargain regarding the effects of its decision.”

While North Kingstown moved to implement the platoon changes after its contract with the union expired, the town announced in March that it reached a new deal with the union that included the 56-hour work week, according to North Kingstown Patch.

In Tiverton, Town Administrator Matthew Wojcik said Tuesday he originally announced plans to implement a 56-hour work week while the town’s union contract was still in place, but acknowledged that he considered it part of his negotiating strategy. The town and its union have since agreed to the platoon changes as part of a new contract that takes effect July 1.

In Providence, Elorza is saddled with a contract that doesn’t expire until June 30, 2017. But he said he believes he has the right to implement the changes and avoid paying overtime. Elorza said he intends to negotiate a fair deal, but warned that he is willing to make the changes unilaterally if an agreement can’t be reached.

“Everyone wins if we sit down and do it collaboratively,” Elorza said.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan 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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