Superior Court Judge Brian Stern has ruled that the Town of North Kingstown did not have the right to implement a 24-hour work shift for its firefighters without first negotiating or winning in arbitration. Now, Judge Stern is ordering town officials to "unring the bell" on the change in wages, hours and other work conditions that were passed earlier this year.
In January, the North Kingstown Town Council passed (with a 3-2 vote) a new ordinance that imposed a 24-hour shift and 56-hour work week for North Kingstown's firefighter union, Local 1651. The new ordinance moved firefighters from 12-hour shifts and upped their work week by 14 hours. Additionally, the ordinance decreased their pay per hour.
In his 28-page ruling, Judge Stern stated that the town did not have the right to make these changes after it lost in arbitration the year prior on the same exact issue. Back in 2011, the town's proposal for 24-hour shifts was shot down by an arbitration board that stated that North Kingstown financial situation "does not mandate such a drastic change."
In May, Stern ruled that the ordinance was "invalid" for having violated the town's charter. The court stated that even if the ordinance had been passed properly, it was still invalid because it conflicted with the Firefighters Arbitration Act by imposing changes to wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment without first bargaining or winning the changes via arbitration. Following that decision, town officials did not return to pre-ordinance wages or hours, arguing that the ordinance was not necessary to implement these changes.
According to Local 1651 Union President Ray Furtado, these changes have put a burden on the town's firefighters, forcing some to work double shifts due to understaffing. In statements to The Hummel Report, Furtado said that the down is liable for approximately $1.3 million in damages and backpay since the 24-hour shift went into effect in March.
Stern added that he anticipated town officials would challenge the ruling in Rhode Island Supreme Court and stayed the decision for 30 days to allow both sides to consent to the order or request a stay. He also added that this process would be a "large costly undertaking" and that the town may also be "required to compensate firefighters for the period since those unilateral changes were made."
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