PROVIDENCE, RI Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s announcement last week that he wants to change the fire department from a four-shift to three-shift schedule has the union criticizing what it calls the mayor’s heavy-handedness, and at least a few City Council leaders want more details.
Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, said Elorza rejected union requests that he hold off on announcing the shift-switch plan until the union had a chance to review it and possibly make alternative proposals.
Elorza spokesman Evan England said the administration wanted to negotiate the changes and said alternatives could be considered then.
“Negotiation is the first step,” England said.
Doughty said Elorza’s unilateral announcement of the plan could end up being counterproductive, creating an atmosphere of suspicion should the administration want to seek other changes later.
He compared that approach with the one taken by the administration of Mayor Angel Taveras during the city’s 2011 fiscal crisis.
“They showed us the numbers,” Doughty said of the Taveras administration. “Private memos, consultants’ reports. They gave us everything we wanted.” That transparency made concessionary deals an easier sell with the membership, he said.
This time, he said the union got a phone call about 13 hours before the announcement.
Elorza said the administration was motivated to move quickly by a consultant’s study that found Providence could be facing an $11.5-million built-in budget deficit in 2017, with subsequent shortfalls through 2021 that could accumulate to $85 million if the city doesn’t find ways to cut spending or raise more revenue.
A state Supreme Court decision issued earlier this year in a case involving the North Kingstown Fire Department found that the department’s platoon structure was a management right and could be changed unilaterally. In response to that decision, bills were introduced and are still pending in the General Assembly that would compel municipalities to negotiate such changes with their firefighter unions.
Changing from four shifts, or platoons, to three would significantly reduce the need for call-back pay, the overtime that must be paid when a firefighter is called in to cover for someone who is out. Elorza’s proposed 2015-16 budget includes $5 million for callback pay, but England said that number has varied in the past, going as high as $11.9 million in 2013.
City Council President Luis Aponte said the council wanted to see more details on the three-platoon plan and how it would save the city money. He said the council’s internal auditor has been asked to look it over.
“We want to make really sure the numbers are there,” Aponte said.
Ward 7 Councilman John J. Igliozzi, chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, said he wanted more information as well.
“First, we need to have more specifics,” he said, adding that he wanted to see a legal opinion from the city solicitor’s office on whether such a change could be made while the firefighters’ current contract is in force. He said he also wanted to see how the switch might affect other city department’s operations.
Ward 4 Councilman Nicholas J. Narducci Jr. said, “I’m not in favor of it.”
Currently, the city’s 400 firefighters work in four 99-member platoons that work 42 hours a week. Elorza said the problem is that if one of those platoons falls under 94 firefighters because of time off or injury, the city has to call someone back and pay extra for the extra shift. Called “callback” pay, the practice is expected to cost about $5 million in the next budget year.
But if those same 400 firefighters are organized in three platoons of 133 each, working 56 hours a week, 39 firefighters would have to be unavailable before a callback would be needed.
Doughty said the move from a 42- to 56-hour week would still generate overtime, which could eat up as much as $2 million of the expected savings.