A matter of fairness for firefighters, or a costly new burden for Rhode Island taxpayers?
That’s the debate over firefighter overtime legislation that appears ticketed for passage Tuesday in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.
The House is slated to vote Tuesday on H5662 AND H5663, both introduced by House Majority Whip John Edwards (D-Tiverton). The first measure would require firefighters to be paid overtime if they work more than 42 hours in a week, while the second would eliminate a state overtime exemption for firefighters.
Opponents like Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League for Cities and Towns, say the legislation would hike costs for taxpayers and substitute the General Assembly’s judgment for that of local officials.
“[That] makes it harder to negotiate deals that are good for the taxpayer,” Daniels said. “This will ultimately increase the cost of firefighter overtime, because so much of our city and town budgets are funded by property taxes. Those costs will get passed down to the property taxpayer.”
Daniels said the federal Fair Labor Standards Act – which governs minimum wages and overtime – permits higher overtime thresholds for police and firefighters than the standard 40 hours. Under FLSA, he said, firefighters are not required to get overtime unless they have worked more than 212 hours in 28 days, or 53 hours per week.
But Derek Silva, president of the Providence firefighters’ union, rejects concerns that the firefighter legislation would lead to a spike in overtime costs.
Silva said the bills are mostly designed to make it cost-prohibitive for cities and towns to impose a 56-hour workweek on firefighters, as Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza did in 2015, with a subsequent increase in overtime costs.
Tiverton, North Kingstown and the Central Coventry Fire District use a workweek with more hours for their firefighters. Silva said other communities in the state are already paying overtime while using a 42-hour work week for firefighters.
Because of that, he said, discouraging a 56-work week “wouldn’t enrich firefighters any more than current collective bargaining agreements have. It would just ensure that no one tried to affect the 56-hour workweek again, which was proven to be a disaster in Providence.”
The Rhode Island Republican Party has echoed the League of Cities and Towns in criticizing the overtime legislation.
“This special interest legislation will cost taxpayers millions and make it harder for our cities and towns to keep taxes down,” RI GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki said in a statement last week. “Rhode Island already has high property taxes in part because Rhode Island has the highest fire protection costs in the nation. Why would we want to go beyond a federal law or undermine a Rhode Island Supreme Court decision if it would harm taxpayers? Why would the General Assembly do this to the taxpayers?”
Meanwhile, Rep. Edwards, the sponsor of the legislation, told the Tiverton Town Council that the legislation was submitted at the request of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello
“These bills are a matter of fairness,” Mattiello said in a statement. “This sets a minimum standard of employment -- if a firefighter works more than 42 hours per week, he or she should be entitled to overtime. The bills also discourage a three-platoon system, which currently require firefighters to work up to 56 hours per week.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was non-committal when asked about the legislation during an interview last week at The Public’s Radio, but the Senate has typically offered support for labor-backed bills.