RI Law Mandates OT for Firefighters After Working 42 Hours Per Week

The State of Rhode Island (RI) has enacted historic legislation expanding overtime protection for firefighters working in the state. The new law [well, to be precise, it is actually an elimination of a past exemption and the expansion of an existing statute] mandates overtime pay for local firefighters for all hours worked over an “average” of forty-two hours per week. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) only requires overtime after a firefighter works fifty-three hours in that same week. In order to understand the significance of this new legislation we need to take a quick dive into firefighter platoon structure, collective bargaining, and management rights in Rhode Island.

The majority of full-time paid firefighters in the northeastern portion of the U.S. [including Rhode Island] work an average of forty-two hours per week. Fire departments that work a forty-two-hour average workweek are typically separated into four roughly equal groups or platoons of firefighters.

Rhode Island firefighters have not always worked forty-two-hour average workweeks. Over the past fifty plus years, RI firefighters have collectively bargained with their respective employers to transition from longer workweeks (i.e. 72-hour, 56-hour, and 48-hour workweeks) to the current forty-two-hour norm. The ability of firefighters to collectively bargain over “wages, rates of pay, hours, working conditions, and all other terms and conditions of employment” is guaranteed through the state’s Firefighter Arbitration Act (RIFAA). The RIFAA dates back to the 1960’s.

Despite this long history of collective bargaining, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued a surprising decision in 2015. In the Town of North Kingstown v. IAFF Local 1651, the RI Supreme Court declared a fire department’s platoon structure was an inherent management right. In other words, RI firefighters could no longer bargain over fire department platoon structure.

What is the problem with this? If a fire department can select its platoon structure absent collective bargaining, what is the impact on the firefighters’ work hours? How can you separate the two? Fire department platoon structure has a direct correlation to the number of hours a firefighter is scheduled to work… In theory, if a RI city or town chooses to adopt a two-platoon organizational structure for its fire department, does that mean firefighters must work an eighty-four-hour per week average? This RI Supreme Court decision was at direct odds with the RIFAA and left many unanswered questions.

Click here, if you want to read more on that decision from my friend and colleague Curt Varone. This was his take on the story dating back to January 9, 2015, aptly entitled RI Supreme Court Finds the Loophole They Were Looking For – Welcome to the Dark Ages of Collective Bargaining.

In the four years since this landmark R.I. Supreme Court decision, one city, two towns, and one fire district have moved firefighters from a four-platoon forty-two-hour average workweek to a three-platoon fifty-six-hour average under the auspices of an inherent management right trumping firefighter collective bargaining rights. Coincidently, the City of Providence’s foray into three-platoon fire department structure (absent collective bargaining) was short-lived and resulted in paying city firefighters almost $10 million in overtime. Providence firefighters returned to a four-platoon forty-two-hour average workweek in early 2017. Click here, for more on that roller coaster from FirefighterOvertime.org.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2019. The state of RI, after heavy lobbying from state firefighters and their labor associations, has enacted new legislation related to firefighter overtime. The new firefighter overtime law requires any fire department in the state that opts to require firefighters work longer than a forty-two-hour average workweek pay overtime for the average hours worked above forty-two. For example, a RI fire department operating on a a three-platoon fifty-six-hour workweek will be required, under state law, to pay overtime for all hours worked over forty-two. Firefighters in this fire department will receive fourteen hours of overtime every week.   

Here are some of the relevant portions form the statute:

(c) No city, town or fire district shall employ any “firefighter,” as defined in § 28-9.1-3, excluding however civilian employees, for an average workweek longer than forty-two (42) hours unless the firefighter is compensated at the rate of one and one-half (1 1/2) times his or her regular rate, for all hours worked in excess of forty-two (42) hours based upon an average workweek. An average workweek shall be calculated utilizing the prior consecutive eight (8) week period, based upon a seven (7) day workweek. For the purposes of this section, “hours worked” shall include all paid leave.

SECTION 2. This act shall take effect upon passage, except that the terms of current
firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement that conflict with this act shall remain in effect until the contract expires when the act shall begin to apply to those covered firefighters.

There are a few of key components/take-aways from this new legislation.

First, the legislation will not affect fire departments that are currently under contract with firefighters. The legislation will become applicable to these fire departments at the expiration of their current collective bargaining agreements.

Second, the legislation guarantees the overtime independent of actual hours worked. This is another enhancement over the FLSA’s minimum overtime requirements. The FLSA only requires overtime for hours actually worked over the statutory maximum for each work period.

Third, while this new legislation is historic and noteworthy, the underlying policy behind its inception is not unique. For example, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), thirty states, including RI, have adopted a higher minimum wage than required by the FLSA. Similarly, according to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), eleven states, including RI, have adopted paid sick leave regulations for most workers. Again, there is no federal mandate for these enhanced employee benefits. Individual states have enacted these based on social and economic policy. This firefighter overtime legislation is really no different.

Contact  William Maccarone to Discuss The Article