Judge Delays Ruling on 56-Hour Work Week

by | May 28, 2018

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Whether or not the town has the right to move the firefighters from a 42-hour to a 56-hour work week remains an open question, after Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl asked both sides for more information and the firefighters filed a 29-violation complaint to the state Labor Relations Board (SLRB) last week.

The new hearing date is Tuesday, June 19.

In December, the town asked Judge McGuirl to rule on whether or not it has the “management right” to impose a three-platoon, 56-hour work week on the East Greenwich firefighters, but it did so asking the judge to rule only “on the pleadings.” In other words, the town was seeking an answer without having a trial.

Since then, the town sought to amend its original complaint. In particular, the town sought to include a vote taken by the Town Council in May that imposes the three-platoon system, to make clear that the judge would not be ruling on a hypothetical issue. The council voted to impose the new schedule June 3 but gave Town Manager Gayle Corrigan discretion on the actual implementation.

The town had sought to avoid full-scale litigation by getting a ruling from Judge McGuirl on the management right issue, so it’s unclear why it would move the firefighters into the new schedule June 3.

The firefighters union argues that the town wants to move them into a three-platoon system to retaliate against the firefighters for exercising their legal rights. The town, alternatively, has argued that motive is irrelevant because the town has a management right to impose the system.

Meanwhile, the union filed its complaint with the SLRB and union lawyer Elizabeth Wiens asked the judge to include the SLRB in the court case in light of the pending complaint. If the SLRB decides to get involved, that could lead to the judge deferring a ruling in the case until after the SLRB’s decision. 

Among the violations before the SLRB are a variety of issues involving individual firefighters but several concern a draft tentative agreement worked out over two lengthy negotiating sessions last December. (Incidentally, the town has yet to produce any legal bills for work done by outside law firm Whelan, Corrente for those sessions or any work since Nov. 30, 2017.)

Most significantly, the agreement would have restored the “floater” position to each platoon – the loss of which in the 2016-19 contract Town Manager Corrigan has repeatedly said was the main reason for increased overtime expenses. (Having a floater under minimum manning means if someone is absent from a shift, the floater will be there to fill the position, thereby avoiding having to bring in someone on overtime.)

Under the draft agreement, firefighters would have gotten a two-year contract extension and a guarantee that the town would not try to move them into a three-platoon system during the contract.

According to the firefighters, the town abandoned the tentative agreement while it was being reviewed by lawyer Wiens. As one of the violations listed in their SLRB complaint, the union says the town scheduled a meeting to discuss the language of the tentative agreement but when the union arrived, town officials told the union that the Town Council had rejected the agreement.

The town then filed suit against the union, seeking the ruling on management rights.

Town Council President Sue Cienki, in a letter to residents in December, said the union had walked away from the agreement. 

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