WOONSOCKET – In a shot across the bow of the firefighter's union, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine has proposed a shift restructuring of the fire department that would virtually eliminate overtime.
The mayor's proposal would fold the 124 members of the fire department into three rotating platoons instead of four, the current norm. And instead of working an average of 42 hours a week before overtime kicks in, every firefighter would have to work 56.
Currently, firefighters work a schedule of two 10-hour days, followed by two 14-hour nights, followed by four days off. The mayor's proposal would convert them to a non-stop rotation of 24 hours on, followed by 48 hours off.
Already enmeshed in litigation with Local 732 of the International Association of Fire Fighters over a cost-saving equipment rollback, Fontaine says he anticipates the latest initiative will trigger more protests from union firefighters, and possibly another lawsuit. But so long as the City Council endorses the plan – a measure seeking their approval is on the docket of Monday night's council meeting – the mayor says he has the authority to implement the plan without collective bargaining.
“We believe the shift structure is something we have the authority to implement,” said Fontaine.
But Lt. Christopher Oakland, the president of the firefighters union, thinks otherwise. While he hadn't consulted with the membership or union lawyer Mark Gursky as of press time, he said the mayor's bombshell announcement smacked of the opening gambit for the start of contract talks. What Oakland found most objectionable is that the mayor was making that move so publicly.
“We hope negotiations move forward and that it's done face-to-face, not through the newspaper or through the City Council,” said Oakland.
Oakland was formally advised of the mayor's proposal by letter just moments after the council docket was released to the public. He was asked to come to the mayor's office to pick up a letter informing him of the proposal.
Oakland said the IAFF's three-year contract with the city expires on June 30 and the union is poised to begin negotiating a new pact. Under the legislation before the council, the shift restructuring plan would take effect the day after the contract expires.
If implemented, Fontaine says it would eliminate an estimated $1 million in overtime to firefighters during the first year, more in the future. Firefighters, he said, earn an average of $10,000 apiece in overtime per year on top of their regular salaries.
During the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2010, more than 10 percent of the fire department's roughly $10.1 million budget went for overtime – a figure that fell just shy of $1.2 million, the mayor said. Straight-time salaries and other benefits ate up another $6.4 million.
Citing a 2009 survey by the International Community Management Association, Fontaine said there's nothing radical about the changes he proposes. Indeed, Fontaine says a comparatively tiny percentage of fire departments in the country follow a work schedule that mirrors that of the Woonsocket Fire Department.
The ICMA says that only 7.5 percent of the fire departments in the country rotate firefighters on a 42-hour-a-week schedule. Also, the survey said 24 hours was the average shift length for 78.7 percent of all departments nationwide.
Fontaine said West Warwick has already included a similar shift overhaul as part of its budget for next fiscal year, and Middletown may follow suit.
“The dependency on overtime for the day-to-day operations of the department will be reduced dramatically,” said Fontaine. “The bottom line is we just can't afford to continue operating the department the way we have been.”