Mayor Elorza, union leaders have deal in Providence firefighter dispute

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Thirteen months after Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza overhauled the city’s fire department in an attempt to achieve cost savings, the city and union leaders have reached a tentative five-year deal that would extend the union’s existing contract in exchange for a slew of structural changes in the department.

Under the terms of the agreement announced Monday, firefighters would return to working a four-platoon shift schedule in exchange for a reduction in minimum manning, the contractually mandated number of workers that must be on the job at all times. The minimum manning number will drop from 94 firefighters to 88.

At a press conference in City Hall, Elorza said the deal will save the city $15 million over five years with the possibility of more savings from an increase in healthcare co-shares for existing employees and new retirees. Firefighters would receive a small pay increase on Jan. 1, 2017 as well as 2% on July 1, 2017, 2.25% in year two, 2.25% in year three, 2.75% in year four and 3.25% in the final year of the deal.

Any new contract must still be approved by rank-and-file members the firefighters’ union as well as the City Council before it takes effect.

If the deal is approved, firefighters would go back to working two 10-hour days followed by two 14-hour nights followed by four days off beginning Nov. 1. (The three-platoon schedule is similar but only gives firefighters two days off.) Union officials have said they will consider moving to 24-hour shifts beginning in January, but that agreement has not been finalized.

The deal does not address an ongoing legal battle over how much firefighters will be paid for increasing their average work weeks from 42 hours on four platoons to 56 hours across three platoons over the last year. That matter will continue to be argued in front of an arbitrator.

An agreement between the two sides would largely settle a dispute that has dominated Elorza’s first two years in office.

In May 2015, the mayor announced plans to move the department from four platoons to three platoons in an attempt to reduce the amount the city was spending on callback overtime. Under the current union contract, every time a platoon falls below 94 firefighters, a member of another platoon is called back to work and paid a time-and-a-half rate. The city spent about $8.2 million a year on callback overtime between 2010 and 2015.

Under the four-platoon system, firefighters were paid a time-and-a-half rate for working more than 42 hours. The three-platoon system that started in August 2015 came with an 8% pay increase, but workers don’t earn overtime pay until after 56 hours. The union filed suit and a Superior Court judge ordered the two sides to grievance arbitration. (The city has appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court and any arbitration decision is also likely to end up before the high court as well.)

The city saw no savings during its first year of implementation, largely because a spike in retirements and injuries led to more than $9 million in overtime costs. The retirements have left the department with no fire chief or any other non-union management.

The city and the union have been at the negotiating table for more than a year, but conversations became more productive when retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams agreed to serve as a mediator over the summer.

Mayor Elorza, union leaders have deal in Providence firefighter dispute