PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The number of Providence firefighters injured on duty has skyrocketed since the Elorza administration overhauled the city’s fire department last month, a trend that has city officials questioning whether workers are abusing city policy.
At least 20 firefighters were labeled injured on duty every day in August, with a peak of 44 on multiple days, according to data obtained by WPRI.com through a public records request. The number of injured absences in August 2015 grew 466% compared to August 2014.
The figures for those injured on duty do not include firefighters out with a long-term disability and those working light duty, according to Evan England, a spokesman for the mayor. As of Monday, 72 firefighters of the 362-member force were on some form of leave, records show.
“We’re determining what can be done about that huge spike that is clearly a few days after the implementation of the three-platoon system on Aug. 2,” Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare told WPRI.com.
The city moved from four fire platoons to three in August as part of of Elorza’s effort to control overtime costs in the department. The change requires firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week to an average of 56 hours. Under the old system, firefighters were paid time-and-a-half for working more than 42 hours. The new system came with an 8% pay increase, but workers don’t earn overtime pay until working more than 56 hours.
Despite the longer schedule, Pare said he doesn’t believe that fatigue is the reason so many firefighters have reported injuries since the changes took effect.
“This isn’t about working too many hours and then slipping and falling and getting injured,” Pare said. “Clearly they’re claiming injury at a higher rate and that’s a concern.”
The firefighters’ union contract allows workers to be paid their full salary when a doctor declares them injured on duty. If the city wishes to challenge any injury, it can require the firefighter to visit a doctor of its choice. If the firefighter’s doctor and the city’s doctor offer differing diagnoses, an independent doctor is chosen to assess the worker’s health.
Even when firefighters return from being injured on duty, the city requires them to work 10 days on light duty, which doesn’t include manning fire trucks.
While Pare declined to say whether the city is already aware of firefighters abusing the injury policy, he warned that he’s looking into that matter. He also said the number of sick days taken by firefighters doubled in August, with the vast majority of absences happening Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“If you stay out and you’re not really injured, there will be consequences,” Pare said.
Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, said the new 56-hour schedule has taken its toll on his members because many have been forced to work overtime to cover for absent workers. He said some firefighters have been forced to work more than 80 hours in a week.
“With all due respect, I don’t know how the commissioner would know that these are fatigue- or not fatigue-related,” Doughty said.
Doughty indicated he isn’t surprised more firefighters have called out sick and been injured on the job. He noted that no other fire department in the country requires its firefighters to work two 10-hour days followed by two 14-hour nights followed by two days off. (Elorza has offered to alter that schedule, but nothing has been changed yet.)
“It does not provide ample opportunity to rest,” Doughty said.
Health issues aside, the two sides also disagree over the cost of the changes.
Records show the city spent between $7.7 million and $12 million a year on callback overtime in the fire department between 2010 and 2015. Since moving to three platoons, the city has spent about $1.3 million on callback, a $300,000 increase compared with the same point in 2014.
Elorza maintains the changes will ultimately save the city $5 million a year, but he has not said how much he expects to save this year.