Letter to the Editor: Putting Fire Overtime Costs in Perspective

by | Oct 25, 2018

By Eugene Quinn

The East Greenwich town manager and Town Council president have stated repeatedly that fire department overtime costs are out of control, and that one reason for this is a poorly negotiated collective bargaining agreement that allows firefighters to collect overtime pay without first working all of their scheduled hours in each pay period.  

Presentations and social media posts by surrogates have stated that 25 percent to 40 percent of overtime “shifts” would not qualify for overtime pay if firefighters were required to work all of their scheduled hours before overtime could be earned.

The situation was exacerbated, or so the narrative goes, by a decision to increase minimum staffing levels from eight to nine without hiring additional firefighters (by making the one “floater” per platoon a permanent member of that platoon), combined with an unusually high incidence of injuries to firefighters this past year.

Some candidates for Town Council have been promoting the idea that nothing less than the town’s financial future is riding on this election because they are the only ones with the experience and toughness to “play hardball” with the unions in the upcoming contract negotiations and force concessions. In this environment, it is not surprising that the overtime policy in the current contract has become the prime example of “giving away the store.”

What’s been missing from the discussion is any perspective on the magnitude of the effect of a more strict overtime policy.  

I recently completed a thorough, careful analysis in which I reconstructed, shift by shift, the operational history of the East Greenwich Fire Department from records obtained through an Access to Public Records Act request. As part of that analysis, I computed overtime wages for every firefighter for every shift using three different rules:

  • The overtime provisions in the current contract.
  • Modified rules under which overtime hours were computed as total hours worked on firefighter duty minus the number of regular scheduled hours in the pay period (i.e. if firefighters only earned overtime AFTER they had worked 42 hours).

  • Modified rules under which overtime hours were computed as total hours worked on firefighter or collateral duty minus the number of scheduled hours in the pay period (i.e. if firefighters only earned overtime AFTER they had worked 42 hours regular duty and any collateral duty shifts such as dispatch).

Both sets of modified rules excluded all types of leave from hours worked (vacation, sick leave, etc).

The first set of modified rules reduced overtime payments by 8.3%, and the second by 6.4%.

Let’s put this into perspective using round numbers to keep things simple. Suppose the town budget is $63 million, and fire department overtime costs are $1 million:

The reduction in the total budget due to either policy change rounds to one tenth of 1 percent.  


Gene Quinn, an assistant professor of mathematics at Stonehill College, is a candidate for School Committee.

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8 Comments

  1. Doug Alexander

    In other words, even if the overtime rules were changed to be what the current Council wants, the savings would be insignificant. And that’s math, not politics. One of them is true.

    Reply
  2. Dan

    Eugene, should we assume that in your possible role as a school committee member, you would view a reasonable option saving the town $83,000 as insignificant?

    Reply
    • Eugene Quinn

      Dan, as a 42-year resident and taxpayer, I want to see every opportunity for savings explored, and I am confident that if all parties participate in the collective bargaining process in good faith, a compromise that is fair to the taxpayers and fair to the firefighters can be reached on this issue. But according to the performance audit we need to come up with $1.2 million to be in compliance with the BEP, so regardless of the outcome we will have to find significant savings elsewhere. The hard work of Anne Musella and the transportation subcommittee that succeeded in trimming $600,000 from the 3-year cost of the school bus contract makes me optimistic that this can be done if we roll up our sleeves and carefully analyze our costs. If I am fortunate enough to be elected I will do just that, and in any case I will continue to serve on the finance subcommittee.

      Reply
    • Other Dan

      I don’t think the point he’s making is that it’s insignificant, but rather that it just simply does not compare to the 25-40% saving numbers that were tossed around by Ken Block. It’s level setting, nothing more.

      Reply
  3. Carla Swanson

    Dan, considered in the context of a 63m budget, and against a narrative that our town is on the brink of fiscal ruin due to firefighter overtime, yes, 83k is “inconsequential.” It is not consequential enough to support the sky-is-falling-so-we-better-pay-lawyers-to-break-the-contract narrative. In the day-to-day, I wouldn’t sneeze at 83k….it would put a small dent in the legal fees our town manager and council members Cienki and Deutsch have racked up over the last 18 months; it would make our schools only 1117000 short of meeting the BEP, and it would cover the severance package Corrigan managed to negotiate for herself.

    Quinn is advocating for making decisions using thoughtful, fact-based analysis, Exactly why he (and the other Dems running for TC and SC) have my vote November 6th.

    Reply
    • Carla Swanson

      (Inconsequential=insignificant)

      Reply
  4. Stephan

    Eugene, since you have already done all this research and analysis, it would be interesting to see beyond 2 sets of modified rules. What would need to happen to eliminate overtime all together? In other words, how many additional firefighters would have to be hired in order to have a shift schedule where no employee has to work any overtime? And what would be the financial impact of such a scenario? I would assume overtime is still 50% more expensive than regular time.

    Reply
    • Eugene Quinn

      Stephan, That’s a very good question. When the current CBA was negotiated, there was a conscious decision to increase minimum staffing on a shift from 8 to 9 (“eliminate floaters”). This was done to improve public safety by putting us closer to a set of guidelines for FD staffing (that most communities don’t meet, I am told). Minimum staffing was raised to 9 on platoon B in July of 2016, on platoon A in July of 2017, and in July of 2018 on platoons C and D. During the entire period there were 9 people (4 officers and 5 firefighters) assigned to each platoon.

      If one person was out, and the minimum staffing level was 8, the ninth person acted as a “floater” meaning the shift operated with 8, but once the minimum was raised to 9, someone from another platoon would have to fill in and would be paid overtime. It can be less expensive to pay the overtime rather than go to 10 person shifts because the 10th person is paid wages and benefits for every shift, but overtime is only paid when someone is out and then is just 1.5 times wages, not wages+benefits.

      So the town manager looked at the two options and in agreement with the fire department decided to phase in the higher minimum staff level and go with the overtime model because it appeared to be less costly that hiring 4 more people.

      Then we had an extraordinarily bad year in terms of serious injuries, far more than in past years, and this caused much more overtime to be needed.

      So the decision to increase minimum staffing without hiring more people is being characterized as a big mistake by the current town council, but everyone did expect some increase in costs as the price of improved public safety with a minimum staffing level of 9, and it was projected to be acceptable quite possibly would have been in a normal year.

      So getting back to the original question, hiring enough extra people to eliminate overtime would almost certainly be more expensive than a compromise where we expect to pay a reasonable amount of overtime but less than the cost of extra people.

      Reply

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