City firefighter vacancies to be filled on an 'on call' basis

City firefighter vacancies to be filled on an 'on call' basis

WOONSOCKET - The Woonsocket Budget Commission took another step forward toward implementation of their five-year plan on Monday, passing an enactment to install a new contract for city firefighters effective July 1, 2014, if an alternative agreement cannot be reached. As part of the resolution, the commission will also change the policy on how they fill vacancies in the fire department starting immediately, using "on call" employees in place of hiring staff for permanent positions.

Local 732 IAFF President Michael Morin vowed to fight the policy.

"We may file an unfair labor practice. We may go to court. We certainly will file a grievance," said Morin.

The union is the last in Woonsocket with an active contract, negotiated prior to the state appointed commission's takeover of city finances in May of 2012. The commission ratified agreements with five other unions representing city employees last June, and in July, they voted to enact the concessions they were attempting to negotiate with the city's police union.

State law, however, does not allow the board to alter existing contracts, and elements of Monday's enactment will not take effect until the firefighters' bargaining agreement expires on July 1 of next year.

According to attorney Daniel Kinder, who has been representing the city in ongoing negotiations with the IAFF, the new hiring policy, however, begins now.

"It's just a description of the way in which the commission will have us filling vacancies in the fire department between now and July 1, 2014," said Kinder. "We will fill the vacancies with on call personnel."

But Morin says the policy could have an enormous negative effect on departmental operations.

"There's a safety issue. There's a training issue," said Morin. "It's an issue we certainly will fight via every avenue available to us." Typically, he said, new employees go through extensive departmental training period prior to fighting fires.

Morin points out that the approved budget for the fire department includes salary for 117 employees, but the department is currently running with just 108 and the commission will not approve any new hires. According to the union leader, that decision has resulted in the spending of an average of $40,000 a week in overtime.

"Guys are spending so much time away from home," said Morin. "They're tired of it. It's just too much."

The firefighter injured while battling a fire on South Main Street Sunday, Morin said, had done 50 hours of overtime during the week. As of Tuesday, he was still being treated in Miriam Hospital's Critical Care unit.

"The physical stress is a problem," said Morin. "It seems like we're just a number to them."

Surprisingly, however, both sides were still somewhat hopeful on the subject of negotiations.

"The enactment specifically says the city will remain available to negotiate with the firefighters' union for alternate terms and conditions," said Kinder. "There's still some discussions going on."

"They are not completely dead, but the optimism that I think we had on both sides a few weeks ago has diminished," he added.

The groups met last week and Morin said he requested some additional information on proposed health care changes.

"Neither side has made their last offer," said Morin. "There's been a lot of progress."

Morin said health care has been a major sticking point between the union and the commission. The other city unions have been switched to a single Blue Cross/Blue Shield health care policy with a 20 percent co-pay.¬?

"The Budget Commission has also put a lot of non-monetary issues on the table," Morin added, pointing to staffing disputes. "We have a staffing plan that comes close to the number that they're looking for in savings, but they'd rather go with their plan."

Morin said he suspected the enactment, which has been on the commission's agenda, but has been tabled at every meeting for the past several months, was finally scheduled for vote when the city did not want to set up another meeting.

"We've been putting it off because we were in the middle of negotiations and at this point we decided that we had to get it in place," commission chairperson Dina Dutremble explained of the vote. "It was time."

Morin said he's most frustrated that the demands on the enactment were not even given to him in writing.

The union chief approached Kinder after Monday's meeting to ask for a copy of what the commission had passed, but said he was unable to obtain one. On the Budget Commission's website, meanwhile, where supporting documents were posted for every agenda item in 2012 and much of 2013, nothing has been posted from the past five meetings.

The enactment passed by a vote of 3-0. Mayor Leo Fontaine and City Council President John Ward were not present for the vote.

Comments

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Leo Fontaine and John Ward were not present for the vote. Fontaine and Ward have both been shirking their responsibilities for a long time. They are the main reason(s) that Woonsocket is being controlled by a budget commission. They are both responsible for the huge increase in taxes and supplemental tax bills shoved down the throats of those of us who have to pay taxes. There is an election coming up and they don't want to upset the union by voting on an unpopular course of action. Hopefully the majority of the voters in this city have had their fill of both Fontaine and Ward - I know I have.