H5662 and Whom Rhode Island Representatives Represent
The March 11 meeting of the Tiverton Town Council had one of those moments when the truth of how things work in Rhode Island was actually stated plainly, clearly, and unambiguously. House bill 5662 (which is up for consideration by the House Labor Committee today) would lower the number of average hours fire fighters can work per week without receiving overtime pay from the federally set 53 hours to 42. Asked about his legislation, Democrat Representative John “Jay” Edwards acknowledged:
- That he put the bill in at the request of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, without regard to the cost to the town he represents.
- That this sort of legislation is designed to interfere with negotiations and push them “the proper way.”
- And if the town and union negotiate a system that everybody likes, but with which this legislation interferes, the way to change the law would be to have the local union contact the state fire fighters union, and “they’ll put in” legislation to change it.
Edwards certainly clarified the Rhode Island Way for the council, and if this legislation passes into law, we’ll also have clarify on whom elected officials actually represent in the Ocean State.
[Video clip made from the official recording on Tiverton Videos; transcript below.]
Town Council Vice President Justin Katz: I had one question for Representative Edwards. You have a bill, 5662, which mandates overtime wages for fire fighters who work over 42 hours.
Representative John “Jay” Edwards: That’s correct.
Katz: Did you happen to estimate how much that would cost the town.
Edwards: I believe the town is currently in negotiations, and it might not affect the town at all until your next contract.
Katz: Well, I’m on the negotiating subcommittee, and I happen to have become familiar with their scheduling, and this particular legislation would be just under $200,000 for a cost to the town.
Edwards: Unless you went to three platoons.
Katz: We’re having very productive negotiations, and even then, there’s going to be a substantial cost to this legislation, and it’s actually potentially going to get in the way of our resolving our negotiations.
Edwards: Well, council, there are only three towns in the state that actually have the 48 hours: Tiverton, one of the fire districts in Coventry, and North Kingstown, so…
Katz: You happen to represent one of those.
Edwards: This is also an issue for the firemen, and safety for the firemen.
Katz: We’re in productive negotiations, and it’d be helpful…
Edwards: Your administrator called me on this.
Katz: Well, I have the opportunity of you here, and I’d like to express as a Town Council…
Edwards: If you notice, I’m the only one on the bill. It’s a leadership bill. It’s coming down from the speaker. So, I’m the one who put it in because I happen to have one of the towns, but this bill was from the leadership.
Katz: But we didn’t vote for speaker…
Edwards: I know you didn’t.
Town Council Member Denise DeMedeiros: So it affects three towns?
Edwards: Three towns.
Katz: And he put it in on behalf of the speaker, he’s saying.
DeMedeiros: I get it.
Town Administrator Jan Reitsma: Just a quick follow up. I think this stems from the difference between the traditional 42-hour cycle and some communities’ going to a 56 hour cycle, which a lot of the fire fighters don’t like. But the question is if a town and the union manage to have negotiations that might end up in the middle, with a compromise, but that compromise is still over the 42-hour limit that’s in this legislation, it basically interferes with the ability to come to that compromise. That’s our concern, and even though it may not affect the contract that we manage to finalize this time, it would affect us for the next contract, and if between the fire fighters and the municipality, we think there may be a reasonable — and we’re not done yet, and I need to be careful with what I say — but if there is a reasonable possibility of striking this compromise and it works for both sides, it would be good that we could get that done.
Edwards: A lot of water has to cross under the bridge before this bill becomes law. I put one in previously at the behest of the Providence fire fighters when they were negotiating, and the mere presence of the bill pushed the negotiations the proper way. I mean, a lot of times the presence of legislation will push both parties into real negotiation.
DeMedeiros: That could be looked at differently, though, because it would push the town more than the fire fighters, right?
Edwards: It all depends how fast you negotiate. I mean, this bill has only been heard once. It has to be heard again. It has to come off through committee. It has to go to the House floor. Then it would have to cross over to the Senate and have to be heard in their committee, have to go back to the floor, and have to go to the governor. Something like that, you wouldn’t see it until probably June.
Katz: I don’t see any allowance in this legislation to grandfather in previously negotiated contracts.
Edwards: It’s in there.
DeMedeiros: It is in there at the end.
Council Member Donna Cook: I guess I’m a little confused as to why anyone would interfere in that way with the town being able to negotiate with a union, where a representative and laws are being put into place to stymie the town from being able to financially stay afloat by these laws being in place. It takes away from being able to negotiate freely. I don’t agree with it at all.
Edwards: That’s your prerogative, councilor. We believe that the safety of the firemen and women are paramount, and putting people in 48-hour straight shifts is not good for them.
Cook: You also have to be cognizant of how much it costs and what the towns can afford, so I think that you really shouldn’t be involved in that at all.
Reitsma: I don’t want to prolong this, but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that the proposal for the 48 hours came from the fire fighters, not from the town.
Edwards: And that legislation was in working with the state fire departments.
Council President Robert Coulter: Just for clarity, when you say, “we believe,” that’s the position of all four of you [Tiverton representatives and senators], or do you mean you and your cosponsors.
Edwards: I’m the only one on the bill.
Senator Walter Felag: I haven’t even heard of the bill. Like I said there’s 2,400 bills, and I’m not going to be an expert on every bill. It’s not gonna happen. That’s why it’s imperative that you let us know your position.
Katz: So the way I read this, then, were we to negotiate terms that conflicted with this now, those terms would no longer be available next time we negotiated a contract.
Edwards: That’s correct.
Katz: So even if in our very positive negotiations with our fire fighters we find a system that works for everybody involved. It’s working great. Three years from now, the contract’s up, the state says, “sorry.”
Edwards: If it’s working great, councilor, what you do is have your union contact the state fire departments, and they’ll put in… we’ll put in legislation on their behalf.
Katz: State fire departments?
Edwards: The state fire association.
Katz: The union, you mean?
Katz: Oh, OK. So, that’s who we would go to to change the legislation?
Edwards: No, you’d go through your local union.
Katz: But we would go through the union to get legislation, you’re saying?
Edwards: You could go through the union to get legislation changed if your union agreed. Or if, as everyone thinks, this 48 hours is going to be detrimental to the lives of your firemen, you’ll come up with something else.
Katz: So, we don’t go to our representatives, we go to the unions instead.
Edwards: You can go to us.