Rhode Island firefighter OT bill to become law

The bill mandates overtime pay for local firefighters after they work an "average" 42-hour week — which is already the case in most, but not all, Rhode Island communities


Katherine Gregg
The Providence Journal, R.I.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Gov. Gina Raimondo has signed into law the continuing-contract bill vehemently opposed by Rhode Island's municipal leaders, two years after vetoing a version of the bill.

She allowed a second union-backed bill that had also sparked controversy to become law without her signature. That bill mandates overtime pay for local firefighters after they work an "average" 42-hour week — which is already the case in most, but not all, Rhode Island communities.

The continuing-contract bill would indefinitely lock in wages and benefits in expired public-employee contracts. The teacher union lobbyists who took the lead in pushing the bill said it was aimed at preventing cities and towns from unilaterally slashing pay and making employees pay more for their health insurance during deadlocked negotiations.

The mayors tried — and failed — to convince Democrat Raimondo that the legislation will lead to higher property taxes because it will strip them of any leverage they might otherwise have to bring union negotiators to the bargaining table in tough economic times.

In 2017, Raimondo agreed with the mayors and town managers. In her veto message, she said:

"Current Rhode Island law protects the taxpayers from being obligated indefinitely for contract provisions that, in the future, may not be affordable.... The proposed legislation before me extinguishes this existing protection, hurting the public's position in contract negotiations, and placing taxpayers at risk of being forever locked into contractual provisions they can no longer afford."

In a statement explaining her turnaround, Raimondo on Tuesday said the continuing-contracts bill she signed differs from the one she vetoed, which "went too far in automatically extending all provisions in collective bargaining agreements for municipal employees and teachers until a successor agreement has been reached."

This version "only" locks in wages and benefits, she said.

"As I stated in that [2017] veto message, expiration dates of collective bargaining agreements motivate the parties to come together and resolve their issues prior to the end of the contract. When I vetoed that bill, I encouraged all interested parties to search for a compromise. The bill that I sign today represents a middle ground."

The differences?

"Two years ago, our municipal leaders identified significant consequences that would occur if all expired contract provisions continued indefinitely: extension of programs regardless of need or effectiveness, unnecessary positions required to be filled, continuation of provisions contrary to new federal and state laws, and forced compliance with outdated practices. This compromise bill resolves these concerns. Cities and towns will not be bound to contractual provisions like these.

"In the rare instance where an agreement is not reached by the time arbitration concludes, contractual provisions related to wages and benefits — and only wages and benefits — would continue under this bill until a new agreement is reached. Every other provision would expire," she said.

Her bottom line: "Protecting an individual's wages and benefits from being unilaterally cut after a contract expires is fair to workers. But it also means that workers would not receive future wage increases without remaining at the bargaining table. It also does not bind cities and towns to any other provisions of the expired contract. It is clear that this bill is meaningfully different than the one I vetoed which would have taken all of these tools away from municipal leaders at the negotiating table."

Raimondo decided not to sign the firefighter overtime bill because "I usually don't sign bills that I don't think are that consequential, and I don't think that it is that consequential," she told reporters Tuesday morning. "It will maybe affect a few dozen firefighters four years from now."

"The evergreen [contract] bill is [consequential], and so I signed it," she added.

The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns accused Raimondo of rigging the game for the unions, while making "the difficult task facing community leaders that much harder."

"Given that 75% of municipal expenses are for personnel (wages, health care, pension and other benefits), most of which are governed by collective bargaining agreements, cities and towns will be squeezed even further. Meanwhile, those same cities and towns with locally administered pension plans face $2.5 billion in unfunded liabilities ... in 24 communities. But it gets worse — communities also face nearly $2.5 billion in unfunded liabilities from other post-employment benefits (OPEB), such as retiree health" insurance, said the league's executive director, Brian Daniels.

"The General Assembly has already stacked the deck against cities and towns with long-standing unfunded mandates such as binding arbitration, unreasonable disability pensions and more," Daniels said.

'The governor's action further rigs the game to the advantage of special interests," he said. "Rhode Islanders will come to regret today's decision by the Governor, with property taxpayers living with the negative impacts long after she has left office."

Raimondo's anticipated shift — after she won the endorsement of the National Education Association of Rhode Island and other unions in her 2018 reelection bid — earned her a rare uncomplimentary editorial on May 3 in a national publication, The Wall Street Journal. It said, in part: "Once hailed as a champion of fiscal sanity, Gov. Gina Raimondo has marched left since winning re-election."

"The youthful Democratic governor with national ambitions is veering left as the Ocean State's economy wobbles. Public unions and progressives smelling political weakness are goading her to sign legislation that would repudiate her reforms and economic agenda. Will Ms. Raimondo sell out Rhode Island taxpayers?"

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©2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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