Union ‘compromise bill’ would pay firefighters OT for working more than 42 hours

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With mayors and town managers calling on lawmakers to oppose legislation that would make it difficult for municipal leaders to restructure their fire departments, fire union officials say a “compromise bill” is in the works.

Paul Valletta Jr., the president of the Cranston firefighters’ union and legislative representative for the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters, confirmed Tuesday the bill his group is pursuing would entitle firefighters to receive overtime pay for working more than 42 hours in a week.

The legislation is expected to be introduced by Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, Tuesday afternoon. Co-sponsors of the bill include Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and Sens. Maryellen Goodwin, Paul Jabour and Frank Ciccone, all of Providence.

“We are trying to work with them, but we have to have a say in the shifts we work,” Valletta said after a group of municipal leaders held a press conference to voice their opposition to legislation that would add platoon structures or shift schedules to matters that can be collectively bargained.

But the so-called compromise legislation is likely to be met with the same opposition from mayors and town leaders who say they need to maintain flexibility when it comes to their options for trimming fire department costs in their respective communities.

“This fire union bill seriously undermines our ability to make key investments and grow our economy,” Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a statement. “This bill gives the fire union a loophole that will cost cities and towns millions, forcing us to raise taxes on residents and businesses.”

The tension between fire unions and some municipal leaders stems largely from a contentious debate around platoon structures.

A state Supreme Court decision issued in January gave North Kingstown the OK to require its fire department to move from four platoons to three, a policy that would require firefighters to work up to 14 additional hours each week. Last month, Providence Elorza issued the same order, but he maintains he wants to negotiate the implementation of the plan with his city’s fire union.

Meanwhile proposed state legislation would shift platoon structures from a management right to an issue that can be negotiated in union contracts. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. John Carnevale, D-Providence, told WPRI.com he is concerned cities and towns would move to restructure their fire departments without negotiating pay rates with their unions.

The bill expected to be introduced Tuesday would give firefighters time-and-a-half pay for working more than 42 hours in a week. The bill leaves open the possibility of negotiating separate agreements with individual municipalities, but would likely cut into large parts of the savings mayors and town managers would hope to achieve by restructuring their departments.

“All members of the workforce deserve to be fairly compensated for hours worked,” Ruggerio, the Senate majority leader, said in a statement. “Public safety personnel are among the only professions not to receive additional compensation for working in excess of 40 hours. I support Senator Lombardi’s compromise legislation because it is time that the overtime component of our labor laws extends to the public safety personnel who put their lives on the line to ensure the safety of the public they serve.”

In a statement, the Providence firefighters’ union said it supports to the new bill.

“We will support any legislative compromise that protects are collective bargaining rights or properly compensates us for the overtime the mayor has unilaterally imposed upon our members,” the union said. “It is important to understand the mayor is asking us to increase our workweek from 42 hours to 56 hours without any additional compensation.”

With the table set, all signs point to a dramatic showdown between the powerful state firefighters’ union and municipal leaders during the final weeks of the legislative session.

Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee, a former Cumberland mayor who organized Tuesday’s press conference, said cities and towns should oppose bills that would take away management rights.

“Make no mistake, what is playing out now is a tug-of-war between creating healthy solvent communities and clinging to the status quo,” McKee said.

North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said municipalities should maintain “some level of discretion as to the operation of our fire departments.”

“Without the ability to manage our fire departments, the future of our cities and towns and their financial stability will be jeopardized,” Lombardi said.

Last month, McKee, Lombardi and 12 other mayors and town administrators sent a letter to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed asking them to oppose the fire platoon bill. Elorza did not sign on to the letter, but he has voiced opposition to the legislation.

At Tuesday’s press conference, no other mayor said he is planning to immediately restructure his fire department. Lombardi, Johnston Mayor Joe Polisena and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung all said they are still reviewing their options. Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien said he doesn’t anticipate considering any changes until after that city agreement with its union expires next year

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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