Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza on Monday made an urgent plea for lawmakers to reject a bill that would create a 42-hour workweek for firefighters, saying it would drive up overtime costs for cities and towns across Rhode Island. But the head of the city firefighters' union disputes the likely impact, and he blames Elorza for causing the standoff over the legislation.
During a City Hall news conference, Elorza said, "If this [overtime bill] passes, it will be absolutely crippling and devastating for municipalities throughout the state, and it would force us to look at raising taxes. Taxes are already too high. We have a business culture, an environment, that's not very friendly to business. Providence already has one of the highest tax rates for commercial properties in the country. We cannot afford to raise taxes, because after a certain point it's this death spiral that we fall into."
Elorza said the OT bill would remove the incentive for firefighters to negotiate reduced overtime costs and, by changing the work week for firefighters from eight to seven days, drive up the cost of current overtime.
But Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, disagrees with Elorza's view that the bill would drive up firefighter overtime spending for cities and towns. He also faults Elorza for trying to abruptly change firefighters' platoon structure without first discussing it with the union.
House and Senate Labor Committees are slated to take up versions of the bill Tuesday afternoon. Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee and the RI League of Cities and Towns are holding a joint Statehouse news conference at 2 pm Tuesday to oppose the bill.
Elorza recently announced a plan -- now delayed -- to shift Providence firefighters from four platoons a day to three, a move that he said could ultimately save about $5 million a year.
"He sent me a letter, said he's putting into effect now, but suspending its implementation," Doughty said of the platoon change. "So from a legal perspective, he says that it's in effect right now. He's just simply suspended it until June 30 and then absent an agreement, he'll implement it."
Doughty said the overtime bill would not erode incentives for firefighters to negotiate changes that would reduce overtime spending. He notes that Providence firefighters now have a 42-hour threshold before overtime kicks in.
"If a contract expired, you would follow the existing terms, so there's no increase or decrease in your relative bargaining position," Doughty said. "And ultimately if you reach agreement, it would be whatever that agreement is that would control. So we think that it is not an incentive or a disincentive for either side's bargaining position."
Yet City Hall says there's a key distinction: that firefighters now work an average of 42 hours a week in standard time, with more hours some weeks and fewer hours in other weeks. Under the firefighter OT bill, any time worked over 42 hours in a seven-day period would trigger overtime pay, unless there was an agreement otherwise.
The mayor said the city has been in negotiations with Local 799 since May 27 and hopes to negotiate its way to savings. Elorza said the city is ready and willing to pay firefighters more as part of an intended change from a 42-hour work week to a 56-hour work week, although he declined to say how much.
Doughty called the offer "insulting. What it is, it would come out to a $4 hour a pay for the [additional] 14 hours, so it's about 50-odd dollars for those extra 14 hours. It's almost 50 below, half of what the legal minimum wage is."
For his part, Elorza said, "I've been very concerned that firefighters are saying that I'm asking them to work more hours and not get paid any more. We are currently at the negotiating table. I have offered to pay them more. It's always been my intention to pay them more. And if you look at other cities and towns -- North Kingstown, for example, gave their firefighters a 33 percent increase to their salary, their pensionable base salary, over the span of seven or eight years. Tiverton has done the same, Coventry has done the same, and I think that is very fair."
The Senate bill sponsored by Senator Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston) calls for creating a 42-hour work week for firefighters and rescue personnel, and a 40 hour work week for municipal police officers "unless otherwise agreed upon by the parties with regard to the payment of overtime." The cosponsors include Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, and Senators Paul Jabour and Frank Ciccone, all of Providence.
Elorza said the legislation drive up Providence's $9 million in annual firefighter overtime costs by redefining firefighters' work week from an eight-day to a seven-day schedule.
The mayor said he's personally expressed his opposition to the firefighter overtime bill to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. He said the legislative leaders listened to his view, but didn't indicate what is likely to happens to the legislation.
Elorza said he's working with other municipal leaders to rally opposition to the overtime bill.
During his news conference, Elorza walked a line between sounding conciliatory to firefighters angered by his approach to changing their platoon structure and underscoring the need for savings in Providence's budget.
"I can understand the impulse to want to help the firefighters. They do extraordinary work," he said. "But helping the firefighters shouldn't come at the expense of bringing cities and towns to their knees, and that's what this bill does. It not only prevents us from realizing savings, but it also adds additional costs to our already bloated overtime budget."
Asked if there's common ground to be found between the two sides, Doughty said he hopes to move beyond a personal clash with Elorza. "This should be about the services we provide and the costs," he said, "so I'll try to maintain a professional relationship and focus on the issues, not the personalities."
This post has been updated.