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.