WOONSOCKET – The city firefighters union has unanimously agreed to accept a 2.75 percent, retroactive pay hike for the fiscal year that began on July 1 – now it's up to the City Council to approve the pact.
The proposal would end an arbitration dispute with roots that go back to a multi-year contract ironed out in 2009, during a particularly turbulent period in relations between the city and Local 732 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Facing an unprecedented rollback in state aid, the city closed the Fairmount Street fire station, eliminated the positions of nine firefighters and froze the wages of firefighters to save money. The firefighters bought in, in part, because the pact called for a wage reopener during the current fiscal year, with an increase somewhere between 2.75 and 4.75 percent.
Still wrestling with a projected municipal budget gap in excess of $1 million this fiscal year, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine hedged when it came time for the reopener to kick in on July 1. After informing the IAFF that he would offer no wage increase despite the previously agreed-upon reopener clause, the IAFF responded by filing for arbitration.
Fire Lt. Christopher Oakland, president of the IAFF, said union members welcome the opportunity to put the arbitration dispute behind them. After two years without a raise, reduced manpower and a continued escalation in demand for services, Oakland says, firefighters deserve a break.
“We didn't get a penny raise in the last two years,” he says. “We're working with fewer firefighters and less equipment. The number of runs hasn't decreased, so we're doing more work with less equipment and personnel.”
Firefighters aren't just working harder, says Oakland, they're working smarter and more efficiently. For the first time this fall, he said, firefighters began using sophisticated new equipment and techniques to to assist patients with severe breathing problems, heart attack and other life-threatening medical conditions.
The deal needs the City Council's endorsement before it can take effect as planned next month, and the panel was expected to vote last night after a briefing from the mayor.
Fontaine said earlier this week the deal doesn't provide the concessions the administration needs from the union to close the projected budget gap – it doesn't even come close. But Fontaine says it's still a better deal than the city is likely to achieve had it allowed a settlement on the reopener dispute to be ironed out in arbitration.
It's a fair assumption that an arbitration panel would have chosen a figure somewhere in the middle of the high and low percentage increases allowed in the reopener clause, Fontaine reasons. Even if an arbitration panel had chosen to apply the average of the two figures, or 3.75 percent, the city would still be on the hook for an additional percentage worth of wages.
“In an effort to try to prevent an arbitration panel from giving them more we tried to give them a minimal amount within a payment structure that's flexible and doesn't place an undue burden on the city,” Fontaine said.
By the end of the fiscal year, the increase will translate into about $250,000 worth of additional payroll costs for the IAFF, the mayor said.
The hike is retroactive to July 1. If all goes according to plan, firefighters will see a raise in their paychecks after January, covering the last six months of the fiscal year. The city will make a retroactive payout to firefighters covering the first six months of the fiscal year sometime in April, according to Fontaine.
The city began the fiscal year with a projected $1.5 million shortfall that Fontaine hoped to eliminate with an assortment of payroll concessions from various city labor unions. Fontaine has gotten most of what he wanted, including higher health care co-pays, job cuts, furlough days and other concessions, from other unions.
Fontaine says he still wants another $1.1 million worth of concessions from firefighters before the end of the fiscal year, but he isn't saying just yet how he plans on achieving that target.
“We're still hopeful and we'll continue to work with them,” says Fontaine.