By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The General Assembly has been moving quickly on legislation requiring cities and towns to pay overtime to firefighters for hours worked beyond the regular 42 per week. The bill in the House passed by a wide margin (62-9), and was supported by EG Rep. Justine Caldwell (Dist. 30), a Democrat.
She said she talked to Town Council President Mark Schwager, Vice President Mike Donegan and the firefighters before casting her vote.
“Mark and I have a difference of opinion with the bill, but he understood it wasn’t going to affect East Greenwich,” she said.
“We are not impacted directly by this but if and when we wanted to change the platoon structure or the hourly structure, it could impact us,” Schwager said. “The council’s approach is to maintain management rights, which we currently have. To give those up is not in out interest.”
The bill targets municipalities that have moved firefighters to a three-platoon, 56-hour-per-week system – North Kingstown, Tiverton and Central Coventry right now. However, it did come close to happening in East Greenwich under the former Republican-led Town Council. That council went so far as to vote to move from a four-platoon to a three-platoon system but was stopped by Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl, who said the council couldn’t impose such a change mid-contract. Schwager, the only current council member who sat on the 2016-18 Town Council, was the lone councilor to vote against the 56-hour work week.
Schwager said he still does not support a 56-hour work week but would want the ability to keep all options open.
Caldwell disagreed with that idea.
“We’ve all seen firsthand how corrosive it was for the town to move to a three-platoon system. I think we know it’s not a good system,” she said. “This bill simply says, if you want to switch to this platoon system, you are going to have to pay your firefighters overtime. I don’t think it’s appropriate to exploit our public employees.”
The Senate version of the bill will be taken up by the labor committee this week. Democratic Sen. Bridget Valverde (Dist. 35), who represents most of East Greenwich as well as parts of North Kingstown, Narragansett and South Kingstown, said she was still talking to community members about the bill, particularly people in North Kingstown, which would be affected if the legislation gets signed into law.
Democratic Sen. Lou Raptakis (Dist. 33) did not respond in time when asked for a comment.
The bills are backed by the state firefighter unions, including the EG firefighters. Local 3328 president Bill Perry spoke in defense of the bills.
“It’s not going to cost East Greenwich a single penny, this legislation,” Perry said. “The three-platoon system is a management right. What is left out [when people talk about it] is that the hours are negotiable.”
He noted that most workers get overtime for anything over 40 hours. As for the argument that this ties the hands of management in case of a financial crisis, Perry said the firefighters would come to the table in that sort of a scenario.
“If a town is near bankruptcy, it doesn’t help us not to help out,” he said.
The Rhode island League of Cities and Towns, conversely, has come out strongly against the bills, with Executive Director Brian Daniels telling the Public’s Radio the legislation would make it harder to negotiate deals that are good for taxpayers.
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