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Little-noticed sentence in state law has big implications for firefighter overtime in RI

WARWICK — Mayor Frank J. Picozzi says the city is studying its options after learning that a bill passed two years ago by the General Assembly paved the way for all firefighters in Rhode Island to use sick and vacation pay to trigger overtime.

A Hummel Report investigation, published in the Providence Sunday Journal, detailed the longtime past practice of Warwick firefighters using sick and vacation pay to boost a workweek, resulting in the city having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in overtime. It is not formalized in the firefighters contract and before 2019 state law would have allowed the city to end the practice with a 30-day notice.

 

Gayle Corrigan, district manager for the Central Coventry Fire District, contacted The Hummel Report after the story was published, pointing to the 2019 law saying that paid leave will be classified as hours worked.

“These are unfunded mandates, nobody is paying for them except for the taxpayers and it’s about to come home to roost,” Corrigan said, adding that Central Coventry fought the overtime bill unsuccessfully when the legislation made its way through the House and Senate two years ago.

The 2019 mandate came in a largely overlooked sentence tacked on to the end of a bill requiring fire departments to pay overtime for any hours over 42 in a week. It reads: “For the purposes of this section, 'hours worked' shall include all paid leave.”

 

“If I could end it I would, because we just can’t afford it,” Picozzi said, adding that he spoke Tuesday with Brian Daniels, executive director for the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, as the issue is now on the radar screen of all cities and towns in Rhode Island.

 

Legislation is pending before the General Assembly that would strike the sentence allowing sick and paid time to be factored in for overtime purposes, but has not been scheduled yet for a hearing.

 

“The state law says every municipality has to do this,” Picozzi said. “And some of them may not have known about it. Now they’re going to.” The league plans to discuss the issue at its next meeting later this month.

The bill, introduced at the request of the firefighters by Rep. John Edwards, a Tiverton Democrat, was aimed at three fire districts that were trying to implement 56-hour workweeks for their firefighters, paid at straight time. Edwards, a contractor, said this week he does not remember the last sentence about paid leave being inserted in the bill.

 

“I work in private industry,” said the 14-term representative. “For us that would be a nonstarter. But if [the firefighters] have been doing it, and it seems to be a past practice, it’s something they’d probably have to negotiate [to eliminate it].”

 

Vincent F. Ragosta Jr., a veteran labor attorney, conceded he had forgotten about the paid leave section of the law. He questioned how “hours worked” could be equated with paid leave.

“Not only is that inherently contradictory, but what this legislation has done, is create a legal fiction,” said Ragosta, who was on Warwick’s bargaining team during negotiations for the contract signed with the union in January 2020. “You’re basically equalizing the firefighter who works and the firefighter who gets paid leave.”

 

Warwick firefighters are scheduled for an average 42-hour week, working in 24-hour shifts. They generally work 24 hours, then get 48 hours off, work for another 24 hours, then have 96 hours off.

 

In Warwick, a firefighter could use sick time for his or her first 24-hour shift, vacation for another 24-hour scheduled shift, then work two or three more, unscheduled, 24-hour shifts. Because the sick and vacation time put the firefighter at 48 hours, all of those unscheduled shifts would be paid time and half.

 

For example, the department’s records show that one firefighter took sick time covering a 24-hour period on Nov. 17 and 18, then another 24 hours from Nov. 21 to Nov. 22. He then worked two consecutive 24-hour shifts that were both paid as overtime. That series of shifts cost the taxpayers an extra $824.80, because the sick time was used to trigger time and a half.

 

The total estimated cost to the city last year: $500,000.

 

As a result of The Hummel Report findings, Picozzi directed his city solicitor Michael Ursillo to research state law regarding firefighter overtime. Ursillo confirmed that the 2019 law mandates sick and vacation time be used for overtime calculations and that Warwick has to follow it.

 

Rep. Patricia Morgan, a Republican whose district includes the Central Coventry Fire District, filed legislation earlier this session that would eliminate the sentence regarding sick and vacation time – while leaving the rest of the bill intact.

 

“Warwick is the poster child, but the truth is this is happening in every fire department. This is statewide, it’s millions and millions and dollars,” Morgan said. “These guys get paid overtime when they go on vacation. They’re exploiting the people of their districts and they know it.”

 

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, who was majority leader when the bill passed, said he was told it would not affect his city of Warwick. Asked if he would consider supporting Morgan’s bill to eliminate using sick and vacation time to trigger overtime, potentially saving Warwick hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said he would – if the mayor requested it and the City Council passed a resolution.

 

Picozzi said he wants to study the issue more before taking any action.

 

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.