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.