RI fire dept.'s sick pay policy under scrutiny
The city has suspended an improper practice at the Warwick Fire Department involving calculations of unused sick time and payment for that time to firefighters
By Mark Reynolds
WARWICK, R.I. — The city has suspended an improper practice at the Fire Department involving calculations of unused sick time and payment for that time to firefighters, according to Mayor Joseph J. Solomon.
"Activities that may have occurred in the past, when brought to the attention of our fire chief and myself, were suspended way back in July," Solomon said.
The situation involved an agreement that was improperly implemented, and the city's suspension of the practice triggered a grievance, Solomon said.
He would not provide more specifics, saying that the issue is now a legal matter, subject to arbitration, and he is also waiting for reports from auditors.
A spokesman for the firefighters union, Michael Carreiro, said the firefighters filed a grievance after Solomon halted a monthly credit that firefighters received for unused sick time, based on a "side agreement" with the previous administration of Mayor Scott Avedisian.
The way the Fire Department has administered firefighters' sick-time benefit has been a focus of growing scrutiny since February, when the City Council hired an accounting firm to investigate.
In late May, two vocal critics of the department's sick-time policy told the council that an accounting practice at the Fire Department allowed firefighters to receive greater sick-time benefits than they were entitled to under the contract.
Under their contract, Warwick firefighters are entitled to 20 sick days per year at full pay. The city compensates firefighters for unused sick days, on a monthly basis, at a rate of pay that is 75 percent of their normal compensation.
Citing public records, the two critics, Rob Cote, a city resident, and Ken Block, a Warwick business owner who has previously run for governor, told the council that many firefighters had exceeded 20 sick days per year by using sick time and also collecting monthly payments that were supposed to be for unused sick time.
Block and Cote say the department paid firefighters for unused sick time each month, and also gave the firefighters a monthly credit.
The monthly credit was outside the terms of the contract, Block and Cote said. Firefighters took sick time, based on such credits, while receiving payment for unused sick time, they said.
Firefighters who were paid for their unused sick time each month should not have received additional credit, according to Cote and Block.
On Monday, Carreiro said, "My understanding was [that] for the calculation purposes, they used the credit to get up to 20 days."
Carreiro acknowledged that the contract says payment to firefighters for unused sick time is to be at a rate of 75 percent.
At that rate, under the contract, a firefighter receives pay equal to 15 days of work in exchange for 20 days of unused sick time.
Last week, Cote told The Providence Journal that he became interested in firefighters' sick time benefits in 2015.
At the time, he said, he was perplexed by two Fire Department expenses that seemed contradictory.
The city, he said, was struggling to cover the overtime expenses of replacements for firefighters who were taking sick time, even though it was heavily compensating firefighters for unused sick time.
Last week, council President Steven Merolla was careful, and limited, in describing the situation, saying that an accounting firm is examining issues related to how the department documented sick time and how it paid firefighters for sick time.
He said he couldn't comment further until he received the report. Accounting firm YKSM of Providence is handling the audit.
"I'm not an accountant," Merolla said. "Matters like that are serious issues. We gave it to experts in the field to look at."
Merolla noted that the firefighters union has hired their own accounting firm to look into the issue. It caught his attention.
"I've never seen that since I've been in politics," he said. "I guess their decision speaks for itself."
Carreiro said he's confident firefighters have not taken more benefits than they're entitled to.
"I don't think there's an abuse of the sick time, " he said.
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