While the city and the Warwick Firefighters signed a three-year contract with a no pay increase in the first year last week, the parties will be back before an arbitrator this Friday to argue over pay.
The issue is not how much of a pay increase they get in the current fiscal year that started on July 1, 2019 – that’s zero – but rather what it should have been on July 1, 2018. How that plays out will determine the base pay for the current year and give every firefighter a handsome check to make up for the difference they weren’t paid for the last 20 months.
The amount of those payments will depend on Robert Bollengier, the arbitrator.
But this is not open ended. Firefighters will get something, but the city won’t go bankrupt.
In reaching a contract, the parties agreed to drop all issues before them when bargaining with former mayor Scott Avedisian broke off, with the exception of pay. On the table were the city’s offer of a 1.5-percent pay increase and the demand of firefighters for 5 percent.
As part of the settlement, the firefighters reduced their demand to 3 percent. So, Bollengier is to set an increase between the two numbers after hearing arguments from the parties. If that doesn’t happen this Friday, a second arbitration session is scheduled for Feb. 25.
“We budgeted that, we’re not losing,” Chief of Staff William DePasquale said Friday.
DePasquale did not disclose how much has been set aside to make the payment. At the time a tentative agreement was announced, it was projected each 1 percent increase in pay would cost the city $250,000.
“We’re doing what other administrations didn’t do. We anticipated,” DePasquale said.
He reminded that under the contract, firefighters will “get a zero percent” increase for FY20. Mayor Joseph Solomon terms the contract “revenue neutral” and, in fact, calculates a $600,000 savings, based on union givebacks of holidays and vacation days.
In a release issued Jan. 29, Solomon said, “I’m pleased to sign this contract today, which guarantees the city of Warwick’s ongoing financial health as well as the superb fire protection services that Warwick residents expect and deserve.” He called the agreement “another responsible step to ensure our city’s financial health moving forward.”
Asked if consideration was given to moving payroll services out of the department into city finance – which manages payroll for other departments – as a means of better controlling the swapping of shifts and sick time that have been issues, DePasquale said the fire and police departments have the software to eliminate much of the paperwork they had relied on and “make accountability easier.” The program is designed to provide the coding needed to account for the variety of variables that face the departments in the scheduling and paying of personnel.
He also said that Mayor Solomon is pushing to fully utilize the city’s Munis program of Tyler Technologies used for accounting and “catch up with the rest of the world.” The issue, he explained, is finding people who understand the capabilities of the system and can act as trainers so that the administration can easily get the information it wants.
With the signing of the contract, the department initiated 24-hour shifts while still working 48 hours a week. Under the schedule that went into effect a couple of weeks ago, firefighters work 10 day hours and 14 night hours. Under the plan, which is similar to that in Providence and Boston and is believed to reduce overtime, following a 24-hour shift, firefighters get two days off. They then work for another 24 hours, which is followed by four days off. The cycle then repeats itself.
“It’s been working very well,” said union President Michael Correiro.
He disclosed that the department is planning a promotional ceremony Feb. 20 at the Crowne Plaza where 60 firefighters – including Chief Peter McMichael, who has never been officially sworn in – will be promoted. With arbitration and the lack of a contract, promotions have been held in abeyance.
Also, in the absence of a contract and unresolved issues over pensions that were resolved in the contract, the administration refrained from filling about 20 department vacancies. As a practice, the department runs an 18-week training academy before taking on new personnel. Correiro did not know when, and if, the next academy is planned.
“Things are moving in the right direction,” he said of the department.
The contract establishes an OPEB trust, the first of its kind in Warwick. All employees hired after July 1, 2019, will contribute, in addition to current co-shares for health insurance, an additional 2 percent of their pay to fund an OPEB trust. The trust will be used to contribute to their health care costs in retirement, which defrays the city's future employee retirement costs. According to Warwick's actuaries, the OPEB fund will reduce the city's contribution toward retiree healthcare for new hires by approximately 30 percent.
The new OPEB trust for firefighters will serve as a template for future negotiations with the city’s other bargaining units.
The contract also includes reductions in firefighter time off and increases in management rights. Firefighters will have a total of seven fewer days off, due to reductions in sick days, personal days and holidays.