PROVIDENCE, RI – Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare is calling on Providence’s firefighters’ union to reimburse the city for overtime wages that were paid after several union officials called out of work to picket an event hosted by Mayor Elorza last week.
Pare said three members of the union’s executive board called out of their 14-hour nightshifts on Friday evening in order to picket the mayor’s event on Federal Hill, each citing union business as their reason for being absent. Two more board members called out of their 10-hour shifts on Saturday morning, again citing union business. The picketing lasted less than three hours.
Each paid absence meant that other firefighters were called back to make sure Providence had 94 firefighters on duty, a provision laid out in the union’s contract. Because those members were paid time-and-a-half, Pare estimated that the cost of the callback time exceeded $3,100.
“They should consider reimbursing the city because that is not union business,” Pare told WPRI.com.
The current firefighters’ union contract allows members of the executive board to take time off for union business, including contract negotiations, conferences or meetings. The contract does not mention picketing, but it does allow for officials in the fire department to approve absences for other union business.
Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, defended his board members’ actions, arguing that picketing is a fundamental act of union business. He said the time used by his members is actually “owed to us” because the department has a policy that credits the union with hours every time the city falls below its minimum manning number falls below 94.
For example, any time an outside fire department is in the city for more than one hour, Providence is required to call back three firefighters, paying them time-and-a-half. The same goes when Providence firefighters are working outside of the city for three hours. Rather than actually call in more firefighters, the city has agreed to add hours a “time bank.” Those hours are used for union business.
The policy around the use of the time bank is murky. It was created after the union filed a grievance against the Cicilline administration several years ago, but Pare said he only learned about it this week and was not aware how many hours have accrued.
Doughty said hours have been added to the bank throughout Elorza’s first nine months in office, but the administration is only questioning the policy because they’re upset about the picket line.
Moving forward, Pare said he plans to “tighten up” the policy, making it clear that picketing will not be considered union business. He also said that the union’s upcoming “listening tour,” where firefighters are expected to explain their side of an ongoing dispute with Elorza over shift changes, will not be considered union business.
“One could argue it’s union business, but that’s nothing more than politicking and getting the pulse of the community,” Pare said.
Union business or not, the picketing caught the attention of nearly all of Providence’s elected officials.
Elorza’s event was pitched as a happy hour event for members of the City Council and representatives and senators from Providence. Of the 36 officials invited to attend, only two showed up. City Council President Luis Aponte and House Majority Leader John DeSimone were among those who did not attend the event.
Elorza repeatedly declined to answer questions about why most lawmakers declined to attend the event, but in a statement, spokesman Evan England called the union’s decision to picket rather than work was “concerning.
“Their absence triggered the need for firefighters to be called back in to work on their time off, which cost the city additional time-and-a-half pay to cover their shifts and adds to the already out-of-control overtime costs the city is committed to addressing,” England said.