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Attempt to reconsider firefighter OT is held for study by state lawmakers

A Warwick city councilman, the head of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns and the manager of the Central Coventry Fire District called on the General Assembly this week to roll back part of a 2019 law that allows firefighters throughout the state to use sick and vacation time to trigger overtime pay.

“For the General Assembly to just arbitrarily wave the wand and say you can do this and the cities and towns have to figure out how to pay for it, is wrong,” said Warwick’s Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur.  “It’s ridiculous. That doesn’t make any sense in the real world.”

 

The law, passed two years ago as part of a larger bill that requires departments to pay firefighters overtime for any hours beyond 42 in a week, also mandates that sick and vacation time be factored in for overtime.

 

A Hummel Report investigation, published last month in The Providence Sunday Journal, found that the mandate is costing Warwick taxpayers close to half a million dollars annually.

It means a firefighter in Warwick, which utilizes 24-hour shifts, could take a sick day and a vacation day and already be eligible to earn overtime without stepping foot in the station.

 

The House Labor Committee on Wednesday heard more than an hour of testimony about a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Patricia Morgan, whose district includes the Central Coventry Fire District, which clawed out of bankruptcy a decade ago. Morgan said that without relief from the 2019 legislation the district will go bankrupt again. She estimated that the district’s taxpayers will have to cough up an additional $300,000 with no additional services provided.

 

Morgan said that each city or town should be able to negotiate what’s in its contract. For example, the Providence firefighters negotiated to allow for sick and vacation time being factored into overtime, while it’s not in Warwick’s collective bargaining agreement.

 

“I have been inundated with emails, comments, phone calls or discussions with not just my constituents, but residents all over the city,” Ladouceur said. “They’re pretty outraged about  this overtime policy.”

Gayle Corrigan, the district manager for Central Coventry, asked the Labor Committee: “I wonder, would you have taken a second look at this if an impact study was done and it showed the burden on taxpayers for putting a simple line in here? And if you saw what it was costing your district in general, I wonder if you would have really understood what this means?”

 

Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, said he is already starting to see the impact of the law on communities’ finances.

 

“State employees are prohibited from counting paid leave toward hours worked, specifically to prevent people from gaming the overtime system by using sick and vacation time,” Daniels said in written testimony submitted to the House Labor Committee before the hearing. “We are aware of no other job – in the public or private sector – where this practice is allowable or condoned.”

But Paul Valletta, a lobbyist for the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters, told the committee it was a “fairness issue.” And he dismissed The Hummel Report investigation, calling it “a hack report.”

 

Valletta laid out the scenario of a firefighter being called in to work overtime on a Sunday. “[The department] makes a contract with him, says you come into work because you need him, we’re going to pay you time and a half on your off day,” he said.

 

Then, Valletta said, he starts his regular shift the next day and gets hurt, or has a death in the family, or his child is sick and he has to take a personal day. “The city can now revert that overtime to straight pay.”

 

Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi, who told The Hummel Report last month he had ordered a review of the department’s overtime practices, said this week he has been swamped putting next year’s budget together, but planned to work with the League of Cities and Towns to address the issue.

 

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said he would consider input from the mayor and City Council.

 

“The mayor is very cognizant that when we pass a law, or change a law, we’re not doing it just for Warwick, it has statewide implications,” Shekarchi said. “We listen to what people have to say. I give everyone the opportunity to make their case. And I’ll give Warwick that same opportunity. [It’s] near and dear to my heart, obviously.”

 

At Wednesday’s hearing, Labor Committee Chairwoman Anastasia Williams asked Morgan why more communities had not come forward to testify about rolling back provisions of the 2019 law.

 

Morgan said: “When this bill was first passed in 2019, they did come.”

 

Williams responded: “It’s 2021, darling. We’re talking about right now, we’re talking about today;  2019 is gone and went."

 

Morgan countered: “Maybe everyone else has lost faith in the fact that the General Assembly listens to them.”

 

The committee voted to hold the bill for further study.

 

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.