Judge: Providence’s request to dismiss firefighter lawsuit ‘an insult to the court’

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island Superior Court judge scolded lawyers representing the city of Providence Thursday, calling their request to toss out a lawsuit filed by the city’s firefighters after he had already issued a decision “an insult to the court.”

Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear did not issue a decision on the city’s request, but his strong rebuke signaled he has little interest in walking back a previous ruling that stated the firefighters and the city could go to grievance arbitration over how much firefighters should be paid for a 14-hour increase to their work week.

The two sides are set to begin arbitration on Dec. 16. Lawrence Holden Jr. is the arbitrator in the case. The city is expected to file an appeal.

Lanphear ruled last month that the city has the right to move from four fire platoons to three, but said the implementation of the new system – namely compensation – should be resolved through the grievance procedures laid out in the city’s existing collective bargaining agreement.

After the ruling, Mayor Jorge Elorza told reporters he was “excited” because it upheld the city’s argument that platoon structures are a management right. But city lawyers told Lanphear they still filed a motion to dismiss because they believed they had more time to make the request.

At one point during Thursday’s 45-minute hearing, Lanphear told both sides “the decision speaks for itself.” He later asked lawyers for the city if they believe he “jumped the gun” with his ruling. They said he did.

“I think we are getting too much into form and not enough into substance,” Lanphear said.

Lawyers for the city have argued that it had the right to require firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours without having an agreement over how much to pay the workers for the 33% increase to their work week.

Instead, the administration elected to implement an 8% pay increase for the 14-hour increase to the work week when it moved ahead with the changes on Aug. 1.

The union has argued that its existing contract guarantees that its members should be paid time-and-a-half for every hour it works over 42 hours in a week, a policy that has been followed until Elorza made the changes.

City officials have dismissed criticism over the 56-hour work week, noting that most firefighters were already working more than 42 hours a week and receiving time-and-a-half for callback pay. Providence has spent an average of $9 million annually on callback since 2009.

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 callback 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.

“We await the judge’s decision,” Evan England, a spokesman for Elorza, told WPRI.com.Correction: The original version of this report incorrectly stated that the city and the firefighters have agreed to go to arbitration.

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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