Council Approves Longer Work Week for Firefighters

Three firefighters with their posters Monday night.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

East Greenwich, R.I. – In what has become an predictable divide, the Town Council voted 4-1 Monday night in favor of moving the Fire Department from a four-platoon system to three platoons, increasing their work week from 42 hours to 56 hours. Council President Sue Cienki, Vice President Sean Todd, and councilmen Nino Granatiero and Andrew Deutsch voted to implement the new system; Councilman Mark Schwager voted against.

The rationale behind the reorganization is to lower fire department expenses. Under the plan, Town Manager Gayle Corrigan proposed laying off 6 of the town’s 36 firefighters and adding two “floaters” to each of the three remaining platoons to decrease overtime.

(Click here to learn more about how the three-platoon system works in North Kingstown.)

No changes, however, will be made to the current fire department structure pending Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl’s ruling on a lawsuit filed by the town in December seeking permission to take such an action in the middle of a valid contract. The firefighters contract with the town does not expire until June 30, 2019. A hearing on the issue is set for May 14.

According to Town Solicitor David D’Agostino, the vote was needed to shore up the town’s argument that it already has the management right to take such actions. But, he said, that does not mean the town will automatically switch to a three-platoon system if the judge rules in its favor.

“The implementation of the plan is contingent on more than just a favorable decision by the court,” said D’Agostino. “For example … the number of firefighters out on IOD [injured on duty] status could prevent the implementation of the reorganization because of manpower considerations. Another consideration is that the timing of any reorganization would best coincide with the close of a payroll week, so that the Town would begin … at the start of a new pay period.”

D’Agostino said an additional vote on timing of the shift structure change would be necessary.

In her comments on why she planned to vote in favor of the EGFD restructuring, President Cienki spoke about the need for the town to “start thinking differently” regarding the town’s financial situation.

“We need to have options … for how we’re going to handle our responsibilities,” she said. “This gives us an option of how we can control costs.”

Councilman Schwager said he couldn’t support the plan because it would only further damage relations between the town and the firefighters.

“This is not a recipe for reaching a negotiated agreement with our town employees. And we will have to reach a negotiated agreement unless we want to be in court for months or even years,” he said. “The challenges we face as a town requires both the firefighters and the town find a reasonable solution together. The council’s current strategy has closed the door on the necessary conversation with the firefighters.”

After the meeting, Cienki said the town was willing to negotiate with the firefighters.

“Any time they want to sit down, the town is ready,” she said.

Union President Bill Perry addresses the council during public comment.

Firefighter union President Bill Perry also said the union was willing to talk.

“We are always willing to negotiate and all the town has to do is contact me and request a meeting,” Perry said. “This town manager and Town Council have never reached out to us to negotiate.”

In December, the union agreed to cut the number of firefighters per platoon from nine (an increase they got in the current contract) to eight, enabling the town to restore one floater per shift with the potential to save in overtime costs. Council President Cienki said Monday negotiations broke down because the town wanted to talk about benefits, not just staffing issues.


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Corrigan Argues for 56-Hour Work Week; Interim Chief Says He’s ‘Not a Fan’

Town Manager Gayle Corrigan presents her report to the Town Council April 9, 2018.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Interim Fire Chief Kevin Robinson said during the Town Council meeting – after being asked by a resident during public comment – that he was “not a fan” of the 24-hour shifts required under Town Manager Gayle Corrigan’s proposed restructuring plan.

Corrigan presented her plan of action to reduce fire department overtime expenses to the Town Council Monday night, arguing that changing the shift structure from 4 platoons to 3 could allow the department to go from 36 to 30 employees while building in staff to cover for illness or injury.

That 56-hour work week plan is even now before Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl. The town sued the firefighters in December asking that the court make a declaration that the town has the right to change the structure of the department unilaterally (i.e. without negotiating the change with the firefighters union).

Corrigan wants the council to approve the 56-hour work week but put it on hold until after McGuirl issues a ruling. A hearing is set on the town’s suit Monday, April 23.

Councilman Mark Schwager asked what to expect at that hearing.

Town Solicitor David D’Agostino said the town has asked Judge McGuirl to make a “judgment on the pleadings” – in other words, make a decision using just what is in front of her, with no additional discovery and no addition testimony. The judge could rule on April 23, he said, or she could ask for additional evidence.

“I don’t know if the court is going to be prepared to rule at that time,” D’Agostino said.

Under Corrigan’s proposed three-platoon system, firefighters would work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. The plan calls for 30 firefighters – 8 plus 2 floaters per shift – down from the current 36 firefighters. She recommends laying off the extra 6 firefighters based on seniority. In a four-platoon system, firefighters typically work 10 hours on, 14 hours off, 10 hours on, 24 hours off, 14 hours on, 96 hours off.

She argued that with seven firefighters on “injured on duty” status, it’s like the fire department is already working with only three platoons and she called the proposed reorganization even more of a safety issue than a fiscal one.

After admitting he was not a fan of 24-hour shifts, Chief Robinson said the important thing was to cut down on the number of hours firefighters were working, regardless of the shift structure. In his budget for fiscal year 2019, Robinson has a $1.2 million line item for overtime. Three quarters of a year into fiscal year 2018, $573,000 has been spent on EGFD overtime. Finance Director Linda Dykeman projects the final number to be just under $800,000. Meanwhile, the number of firefighters has remained constant at 36 since 2006, while calls have gone up nearly a third.

Corrigan also outlined possible changes in fire service delivery in the event Judge McGuirl rules against the town, including allowing the chief reduce the number of firefighters on duty overnight, making the department a volunteer service or privatizing the emergency medical rescue service.

Corrigan said she will present a candidate to fill the deputy chief position on an interim basis at the Town Council meeting May 14. No vote on the plan was taken Monday night.

For more information about Corrigan’s presentation, see our earlier story. Watch the entire meeting here.




Corrigan Presents Plan for 56-Hour Firefighter Work Week

Station One on Main Street.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Among other ideas, the town manager suggests returning to a volunteer fire service and/or contracting out EMS service.

East Greenwich, R.I. – Town Manager Gayle Corrigan will present her plan to restructure the fire department from the current four platoons to three at the Town Council meeting Monday (EGFD Restructuring Proposal 4/2018).

In a four-platoon system, firefighters typically work 10 hours on, 14 hours off, 10 hours on, 24 hours off, 14 hours on, 96 hours off.

Under Corrigan’s proposed three-platoon system, firefighters would work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. The plan calls for 30 firefighters – 8 plus 2 floaters per shift – down from the current 36 firefighters. She recommends laying off the extra 6 firefighters.

Corrigan recommends the Town Council adopt the reorganization but hold off implementation until after Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl rules on the town’s pending lawsuit against the firefighters on whether or not it has the right to reorganize the platoons without consent of the union. The town and the firefighters are in the middle of a three-year contract, from 2016 to 2019.

In her proposal, Corrigan suggests other possible cost-saving measures if the court rules against it. Among those suggestions would be to decrease the number of firefighters on overnight, a time when the number of incidents is lower.  Corrigan also suggests the possible return to a partial or largely volunteer fire service and subcontracting out EMS service.

Corrigan also says in her plan that the department needs a deputy chief – a position she has kept vacant since her arrival last June. She will recommend an interim deputy fire chief at the May 14 Town Council meeting.




 

 

 

Corrigan Continues Assault on Fire District Merger

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Town Manager Gayle Corrigan (left) presented another chapter to her look back at the 2013 merger of the East Greenwich Fire District into a town department, continuing her argument that it took place without due diligence and with grave financial consequences for the town. (Find her report here.)

As she has done several times in the months since she’s been town manager, Corrigan said the fire department was too expensive and needed to be fixed.

Her solution: restructure the department into three platoons that work 56 hours a week from the current four platoons and 42-hour work week. The town has sued the firefighters to be able to impose the restructure immediately; firefighters say they have a valid contract until 2019.

Corrigan’s report, while repeating arguments made in earlier reports, did take more exact aim at some of the people in charge in recent years. In particular, she cited what she said was the inexperience of former Town Manager Tom Coyle, former Town Solicitor Peter Clarkin and former Fire Chief Russ McGillivray in negotiating contracts.

However, Coyle served as police chief before becoming town manager and negotiated contracts in that position; Clarkin negotiated several rounds of contracts for three unions during his tenure in East Greenwich before adding the firefighter contract; McGillivray came from the larger West Warwick Fire Department and served as deputy chief in EG for three years before becoming chief. McGillivray and Coyle both hold master’s degrees in public administration.

Corrigan questioned the increase in the number of “service calls” (i.e. miscellaneous calls) between 2013 and 2014 (when the district became a department). As she said, the increase was due to the decision to classify alarm box resets as service calls.

In a phone interview Thursday, McGillivray (who took over as chief in 2013) offered this explanation for the classification change: “We were just trying to account for the hours and the work that the fire department was doing. When we went from the fire district to the fire department, I saw that social services and police department were very data driven and I wanted to get a better accounting of the work we actually did.”

Meanwhile, the total number of incident calls (including service calls) has risen steadily in recent years.  Even if service calls are subtracted, the fire department had more than 1,000 additional incidents in 2017 than it had in 2006, the year the fire district topped out at 36 total firefighters. In 2006 there were 2,386 incidents; in 2017, there were 4,121 (665 of them classified as service calls).

Corrigan also highlighted a jump in rescue billing rates between 2015 and 2016, but said she had not yet looked into the cause for the increases.

Former Fire Chief John McKenna (who served as chief from 2005 to 2010) was at the meeting Monday and during public comment he said that spike came after the billing company – Comstar – went from using a base rate and subcategories in its billing charges (for instance, separating out fees for starting an IV or using oxygen) to having one blended cost. McKenna, who now works in private industry, said the change was for all Comstar clients, public and private. McGillivray gave the same explanation Thursday.

In her report, Corrigan spoke about raises, saying some firefighters got a 48 percent raise in the current contract, while everyone else in town got 2 percent raises.

According to firefighter union president Bill Perry, the firefighters got a 2 percent raise like everyone else but he acknowledged that six so-called lateral transfers (firefighters hired from other departments) were given the salary of a second-year firefighter instead of a first-year firefighter, which came out to about $3 more per hour for those six firefighters (a 2 percent raise that year would have been in the range of 50 cents an hour).

He said he did not know where Corrigan got the 48 percent figure.

During public comment Monday, Perry urged the council to talk to other municipalities where they have put in a three-platoon system. There have been four.

In North Kingstown, town officials imposed a three-platoon system that was fought extensively and expensively in the courts; firefighters there lost after it was ruled they did not have a valid contract. A three-platoon system was also imposed in Providence, but the city abandoned it after years of litigation and went back to a four-platoon system. The city had to pay Providence firefighters several million dollars in overtime accrued during the three-platoon, 56-hour work weeks. Tiverton and Central Coventry Fire District also have three-platoon systems – Tiverton’s through negotiation and Central Coventry’s was imposed after that district went bankrupt. Corrigan runs Central Coventry.

“Do your due diligence. We have an active contract,” said Perry. “I would hope that everybody would be adults and sit down instead of having attorneys become wealthy off the community. Nobody benefits from that.”

“Bill, we’d be happy to sit down,” Council President Sue Cienki said.

The last attempt to negotiate failed in December; both sides blamed the other side.

Corrigan said she would present “phase one” of her restructuring plan at the April 9 Town Council meeting.



 

Town Sues Firefighters, Ups Ante on Negotiations

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The town filed suit against the East Greenwich firefighters union Tuesday, looking to Superior Court to decide if the town has the right to reorganize the fire department and implement a three-platoon, 56-hour work week. The town is seeking a declaratory judgment regarding its “right to decide the organizational structure, size, and appropriate staffing levels of the East Greenwich Fire Department.”

This follows two weeks of secret negotiations between the town and the firefighters.

“Currently, the Fire Department is incurring approximately 500 hours per week on overtime, which raises serious safety concerns. Clearly, something is wrong, and we are working to address that,” said Town Council President Sue Cienki in a press release sent out at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. “The Town is asking the Court for guidance and direction to ensure East Greenwich resolves this situation in a manner that is fair and equitable to both the union and taxpayers.”

The firefighters and the town are in the middle of a three-year contract (2016 to 2019) but town officials have been complaining about the contract and what they call excessive overtime since June, when financial consultants Gayle Corrigan and Linda Dykeman (now EG’s town manager and finance director, respectively) focused on the fire department in particular as a potential budget problem area.

Three of the current town council members signed the 2016 agreement – Cienki, Vice President Sean Todd and Councilman Mark Schwager. Cienki and Todd have said they didn’t really know the implications of the contract. Officials have laid blame for the contract on former Town Manager Tom Coyle, who separated from the town in June and whom Corrigan replaced, and former Fire Chief Russ McGillivray, who was dismissed in November.

In her presentation in June, Corrigan highlighted a change in the contract that added a firefighter to each shift, going from eight per shift with a “floater” to cover absences, to nine with no floater. Without the floater, if someone on a shift was sick, on vacation or injured, that shift would have to be filled by someone working overtime. Keeping the floater wouldn’t eliminate all overtime – often there is more than one person out per shift – but it would lower it.

According to union president Bill Perry, during the recent negotiations, the union and the town came to an agreement to forestall implementation of a 56-hour work week (right now, the firefighters work a four-platoon, 42-hour work week).

“We were blindsided by reading the press release on Facebook,” Perry said Tuesday evening, noting that the town had wanted the negotiations to be “hush-hush” and kept out of social media and news outlets.

Perry said he and other union representatives sat down to negotiate with attorney Tim Cavazza (who has made a name for himself getting municipalities to force fire departments into a 56-hour work week), Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and members of the Town Council  for several hours in recent weeks, following Corrigan’s recommendation to restructure the fire department.

“We negotiated in good faith. We came to an agreement – both parties agreed,” said Perry. “Attorney Cavazza sent over a tentative agreement last week and our lawyer has been reviewing the language and making some revisions. Then, lo and behold, this happens.”

He added, “We were basically at an agreement. Nothing was signed yet. It just takes time. They understood it was going to take some time.”

The town is also asking the court to weigh in on whether or not the town has to pay elected union officials for performing services on behalf of the union. It will delay implementation of a three-platoon structure, according to the press release, “while it awaits guidance form the Superior Court and continues negotiations.”

Corrigan Says Structural Changes – Like 56-hour Work Week – Needed to Combat Fire Overtime

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

For months, Town Council President Sue Cienki and Town Manager Gayle Corrigan have been beating the drum that firefighter overtime is too high. In an interview Friday, Corrigan said the only way to combat that overtime was through “structural changes,” such as moving from a four-platoon, 42-hour work week to a three-platoon, 56-hour work week.

She was against hiring more firefighters to alleviate overtime.

“The answer is not to add more people and add more cost because that would drive the long-term costs,” said Corrigan. In recent years, overtime costs, in the $600,000 range, have surpassed what’s been budgeted, this year $450,000.

“I would argue that hiring more people, it has such profound long-term effects, in terms of pensions, in terms of all of these things. So, if the community is 13,000 people, and you don’t need to hire more people because there have been these structural changes, I would say the first thing we should be trying to do it make structural changes to try and realign the overtime to where it naturally is. What’s happening now is not a natural.”

Firefighter union president Bill Perry said overtime has been high lately because of vacancies and injuries and that overtime costs vary from year to year. In the most recent contract, the town negotiated that it can request an independent medical exam after two months for a firefighter out on injury; previously, the town had to wait six months.

Corrigan outlined ways being considered to bring down overtime costs.

“You could eliminate the provision they put into the contract of eliminating the floaters,” she said, referring to the change negotiated in the 2016-2019 contract that phases out “floater” positions and increasing the minimum manning requirement per shift from eight firefighters to nine. Before this change, each platoon had eight firefighters and one floater; under the 2016-2019 contract, each platoon will end up with nine firefighters and no floater (phased in over the life of the contract), so if one of the nine is out because of vacation, illness or injury, that position would have to be filled by a firefighter being paid overtime.

Firefighters have said the ninth person is needed when the department gets life-threatening calls.

Corrigan said another way to decrease overtime would be to move to a 56-hour, 3-platoon system. North Kingstown instituted such a system three years ago amid numerous legal challenges from the firefighters, who said the longer shifts were not safe. Providence also implemented the 56-hour, 3-platoon system but broke the collective bargaining agreement to accomplish it and lost in the courts. As a result, Providence reverted to the 4-platoon system and recently agreed to pay the firefighters $2.8 million in back wages. Tim Cavazza, the lawyer hired by both North Kingstown and Providence to force the 3-platoon system, has been hired by East Greenwich.

One other way to decrease overtime, Corrigan said, would be to implement an overtime cap. “Once you get up to a certain level, $200,000 say, once it gets to that level you pay overtime as straight time. You don’t get the time-and-a-half.”

Perry said he has repeatedly offered to meet with town officials over contract issues, but the town has refused. At the special Town Council meeting Nov. 20, Town Solicitor David D’Agostino acknowledged that Perry had asked the town to negotiate. If the town decides to implement one of the changes Corrigan mentioned Friday, Perry has said the firefighters will sue.

The Town Council meets Monday, Dec. 4. On the agenda, Acting Fire Chief Olsen will present a report on his first month on the job.