The state Labor Relations Board Friday ruled the Town of North Kingstown “engaged in deliberate and unlawful behavior” when it switched firefighters from 10-hour to 24-hour shifts in March 2012, and it ordered the town to immediately revert back to the previous schedule and wage rates. (The ruling can be seen here.)
Town Council President Liz Dolan told the Providence Journal the town intends to seek a “stay” (delay) of the order.
The town imposed 24-hour shifts on firefighters in January 2012, in a cost-saving move. Under the system, firefighters work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. Before that, they had worked two 10-hour days and two 10-hour nights, with four days off.
Lawyer for the town Dan Kinder said the move has saved the town $1 million in overtime costs this year. Town Manager Mike Embury said in August he did yet not have specific figures, noting the town was currently without a finance director.
The union argued the new system requires firefighters to work an average of 72 hours a week over a two-week period, up from 42 hours a week under the old system.
The town did grant firefighters a 10 percent pay increase, but Ray Furtado, president of International Association of Firefighters, Local 1651, said that increase is dwarfed by the pay decrease that came when pay was amortized over the longer work week. For instance, he said, a firefighter making around $28 an hour before is now making roughly $21 an hour.
The union argued the town’s decision to change the firefighters’ working hours outside of negotiations violated the firefighters arbitration act.
Kinder argued the case hinged on a legal issue – that the union failed to notify the town about its desire to enter into arbitration within the required time period (120 days before the last day money can be appropriated), thereby relinquishing its right to arbitration.
The Labor Relations Board’s 40-page ruling, however, sides firmly with the firefighters:
"We believe that the employer knew full well that it was engaging in an unlawful practice when it unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of employment and did so in an effort to 'push the envelope' within the labor relations community.”
It continues,"In crafting our remedies, we recognize that we cannot give back to the firefighters the time that they missed with their families or undo the stress that they have endured. We wish there was more we could have done about that…. we have crafted a 'make whole' remedy herein, which includes not only all wages owed, but interest as well."
Adding back pay, interest payments and legal fees, Furtado estimates the town could be liable for millions of dollars.
He said Saturday the firefighters plan to comply with the LRB's call for an immediate return to the former shift schedule, starting Sunday morning.