RI to vote on proposal to expand overtime pay for firefighters

Two bills would strike from R.I. state law an exemption that shields the cities and towns from having to pay firefighters overtime after 42 hours

By Katherine Gregg
The Providence Journal, R.I.

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A House committee is poised to vote Wednesday on legislation that would put state lawmakers smack in the middle of a long-running fight between municipal and union leaders over work shifts and overtime pay for firefighters.

At their most basic, the two bills sponsored by House Majority Whip John "Jay" Edwards, D-Tiverton, would strike from state law an exemption that shields the cities and towns from having to pay firefighters overtime after 42 hours.

The debate centers, in part, on the average length of each shift for each group of firefighters, also known as a "platoon."

Cranston Deputy Fire Chief Paul Valletta – who doubles as the $3,035.58-a-month lobbyist for the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters – led the charge during a March 6 House Labor Committee hearing.

"A fairness pay bill," Valletta told the lawmakers. "That's all this is. Opponents will get up before you tonight and they'll tell you this is going to impact the firefighters' arbitration act. They are going to tell you this is going to stop cities and towns from ... being able to negotiate in good faith the shifts and things like that. This doesn't do anything like that."

"The cities and towns can still put us in these terrible, dangerous shifts that they are putting our firefighters in now. There are presently three cities and towns that do this: Central Coventry Fire District, North Kingstown Fire Department and the Tiverton Fire Department. ... Tiverton works 48 hours straight."

Besides the potential fatigue factor, he said: "Wives – the spouses – don't like when you leave your house on Monday morning and you return Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning. So they are bad for firefighters and they are bad for the family life."

"All this bill does is it gives us what every other American has in this country: after 40 hours of work you are paid overtime. We are exempt from that under federal law. But that federal law allows the states to beef up that law and that's what we are asking you to do here," Valletta said.

In his own written testimony, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré wrote: "The Providence Fire Department currently operates on a four-platoon schedule which consists of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, 24 hours on and 96 hours off per cycle. Removing this exemption would obligate paying overtime which would have an adverse financial impact on the city."

The city projected on Monday the potential impact to Providence at $2 million to $5 million in new overtime costs. The city's firefighters union disputes those numbers.

"We're strongly opposed to both bills," said Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. "I believe two of the communities with three-platoon structures – North Kingstown and Tiverton – are currently negotiating their fire contracts, so these bills could upend those negotiations ... It wouldn't technically ban the three-platoon format, but it would make it much more expensive to pursue if a community wanted to."

Elaborating for the House Labor Committee, Daniels cited data in a Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council report that found "Rhode Island had the highest per capita spending on fire protection services in [Fiscal Year 2016] – more than double the national average," which contributes to Rhode Island having the seventh-highest property-tax burden in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation.

"This bill would infringe on local officials' ability to manage their public safety forces efficiently and would lead to even higher costs in numerous communities," he argued.

"City and town managers and local public safety directors have tried to find efficiencies by addressing platoon structure and schedules. North Kingstown enacted a three-platoon structure that averaged 56 hours of work per week, but with two days off between 24-hour shifts. When this decision was challenged in court, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that 'the decision to implement the three-platoon structure is a management right of the town.'"

Beyond that, he argued: the federal Fair Labor Standards Act that governs minimum wages and overtime "specifically allows higher overtime thresholds for police and firefighters than the standard 40 hours. Under FLSA, firefighters are not required to receive overtime unless they have worked more than 212 hours in 28 days."

"So, if the RI Supreme Court has upheld management's right to staff and schedule its fire services, and FLSA allows longer standard work weeks for firefighters, there is no reason for the state to set a lower threshold for overtime than required under federal law, as this bill would do," he said.

"The General Assembly has to stop tying the hands of municipal officials," he argued.

Copyright The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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