Two state bills that would supersede a federal exemption regarding overtime pay for firefighters in Rhode Island is causing concern among municipal leaders pertaining to how the measure would financially impact cities and towns that seek to find ways to reduce operating costs of their fire departments.
The bills, H5662 and H5663, were slated for discussion among the House Labor Committee on Wednesday and, according to some inside the House, have already garnered significant support – including from House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello – and could be brought to a vote on the House floor as early as next week.
The bills would remove the federal exemption to overtime requirements regarding firefighters laid out in the Fair Labor Standards Act, and would mandate that firefighters in Rhode Island be compensated at time and a half for hours worked above 42 hours a week.
Most fire departments in Rhode Island utilize what is known as a four-platoon system, splitting up shifts among four units over the course of a month that balance long shifts – usually 10 or 14-hour shifts – with significant periods of time off in between, anywhere from one to four days of down time.
Warwick utilizes a four-platoon system currently, where firefighters work two 10-hour day shifts, two 14-hour night shifts and then get three days off. This averages out to about 42 hours worked throughout the week each month.
In three Rhode Island communities – Coventry, Tiverton and North Kingstown – the fire department is split into three platoons, which results in 24-hour or even 48-hour shifts followed by extended periods of time off, which adds up to an average of 56 hours worked per week.
Proponents of the three-platoon system say it cuts down on personnel costs by needing to utilize fewer firefighters, but opponents of three-platoon systems say that it necessitates more overtime and causes additional pension costs, costing taxpayers more in the long run.
“It adds up to 33 percent more workload and costs the city more money,” said Warwick Firefighters’ Union president Michael Carreiro, who is opposed to the three-platoon system.
Most recently, Providence received significant attention when Mayor Jorge Elorza tried to shake up the city’s fire department from a four-platoon system to a three-platoon system after being elected in 2015. The decision was immediately met with widespread resistance from the fire union, and resulted in an almost $6 million settlement to be paid to firefighters – not including legal fees – in exchange for a dismissal of over a dozen grievances filed in protest of the change. The city also agreed to move back to a four-platoon system as a result of the dispute.
Proponents of the bill, like firefighters’ union lobbyist and Cranston Deputy Fire Chief Paul Valletta, call it a “fairness” bill that would guarantee fair wages for time worked, and categorized three platoon shifts as “terrible” and “dangerous” to firefighters during testimony at the State House earlier this month.
However, opponents of the bill argue that it would tie the hands of municipal managers that want to be able to explore options to capture savings and re-work their fire departments to a system that works for them.
“This essentially prevents any community who is looking at doing a three-platoon structure or a hybrid structure or something that works best for their firefighters and management and basically takes it off the table,” said Brian Daniels, executive director of the RI League of Cities and Towns. “This is stuffing a one-size-fits-all schedule on all fire departments across the state, irrespective of the need or what's best for the city or town.”
Daniels cited the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council’s report for FY16, which indicated that Rhode Island spent more per capita on firefighting services than any other state in the nation – more than double the national average, which he further argues (citing the Tax Foundation) “contributes to Rhode Island’s 7th-highest property tax burden in the country.”
“When your cities and towns are funded primarily by property tax and you have these personnel costs...It falls on the taxpayers, there's just nowhere else to go,” he said.
Daniels said that the Rhode Island Supreme Court has already ruled in the past to uphold the federal regulations that exempt firefighters from being paid overtime at the same rate as other professions – and for good reason, he argues.
“State law also has an exemption to overtime because the state recognizes firefighters are not bank tellers,” he said, adding that their work schedules are far different from other professionals and that there is often significant down time on long shifts, including time that is allotted for firefighters to sleep.
“That’s important. It's not as if people are staying awake for 24 hours or 48 hours,” he said.
Additionally, Daniels warned that the bill could disrupt fire department contract negotiations that are ongoing in North Kingstown and Tiverton.
“This bill would infringe on local officials’ ability to manage their public safety forces efficiently and would lead to even higher taxes in numerous communities,” Daniels writes in the press release.
Mayor Joseph Solomon came out against the bills on Tuesday in a letter addressed to House Labor Committee chairwoman Anastasia Williams, citing similar arguments to Daniels but also adding that Warwick is already facing a $7.4 million deficit for the current fiscal year and is staring down a deficit next fiscal year (which begins July 1) of as much as $18 million. He adds the perspective of the recent arbitration decision that will require the city pay about $6.5 million in back pension pay to firefighters.
“It is clear that passage of H5662 and H5663 would only cause fire costs to skyrocket further, ultimately costing the City of Warwick and communities across the state far more than that which is already included in robust fire budgets and placing them in a financial state that is simply not sustainable in the long term,” Solomon wrote. “Ultimately, to bear the burden of these unrealistic fire-related costs, communities will be forced to look elsewhere in their budgets to offset the cost difference. This would likely mean cutting other municipal services and programs that are vital to the well-being of municipalities, their residents and business communities.”
It is not clear if Warwick has been exploring a three-platoon system to try and curb costs from within the fire department, which averaged $1.67 million in overtime costs between FY15 and FY18. Carreiro could not comment on whether or not that was a subject of discussion during negotiations for the fire department’s successive collective bargaining agreement with the city, because that process is pending ongoing arbitration.
According to documents obtained by the Beacon, the fire department has already exceeded $2.1 million in overtime costs for FY19 as of January 31, 2019. This puts them at about $900,000 in excess of the overtime budget, with five months left to be accounted for by the end of the fiscal year.
“I think our budget in overtime is a significant concern,” said Ward 5 Councilman and finance committee chairman Ed Ladouceur, adding he was anxious to see how things shaped up under the leadership of new fire chief Peter McMichael. He noted that the overtime costs being accrued by the fire department are occurring despite being at a full complement of 220 firefighters.
The bills both passed the House Labor Committee, and will not be brought to the House floor.