Firefighters get bonus for being healthy

Posted

An examination of payroll records and information provided by Fire Chief James McLaughlin show that virtually no paid sick leave is used by department personnel, and that at the end of the year department members get a bonus – in some cases more than $5,000 – for unused sick days.

The total cost to taxpayers for the calendar year ending Dec. 31, 2015, was $442,913.87. That included a one-time payment of $18,839 to John Williams upon his retirement for unused sick time. That amount promises to increase by 50 percent in the current year under a contract approved by the mayor and the City Council last year.

The issue of sick leave and payment for unused sick time was raised by Warwick resident and activist Rob Cote, who in recent months has filed multiple requests for public information. Follow-up inquiries and examination of the information by Ken Block have raised the question of why the city has contracted for firefighter sick time, since by state statute law enforcement personnel are entitled to unlimited paid sick time for job-related injuries or illness.

Block termed the sick pay provision unique to Warwick, saying it gives firefighters an “8-percent bonus.” He said the system gives a firefighter the ability to collect payment for an additional 400 days in the course of a 20-year career.

In addition to being paid for 15 days – 75 percent of the 20 days set by contract – for every year after the seventh year without using sick time, they receive 75 percent payment for the accrued 140 days upon retirement at the rate of pay at which they retired.

Block – who ran as a Republican for governor two years ago and was beaten in a party primary by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung – is the founder of Watchdog RI. The group conducted an extensive examination of fire departments across the state.

“What Rhode Island is spending compared to other states with large fire departments is 33 percent to 100 percent more than any other place we looked at,” Block said.

He reasons payment for unused sick time has simply become a means for elected officials seeking firefighter union support to bloat their pay without making it obvious to the taxpayers who have to foot the bill.

According to department records for 2015, 114 firefighters who have all accrued 140 days of unused sick days were paid for 50 percent of the 20 days they didn’t use until July 1, and then for 75 percent of the days for the rest of the year. As some reached the 140 days within less than a full year, they didn’t receive payment for the full amount.

According to an examination of the dates of hire, an additional eight firefighters had been on the force a minimum of seven years but failed to meet the 140-day threshold because they had used sick days.

“What we see from the data is, there are a whole bunch of firefighters at or very close to receiving reimbursement for nearly every sick day they were given that year. And what that amounts to, if they’re receiving reimbursement for 20 sick days, with a new contract, they’re being paid for 15 of those 20 days, they’re getting paid at 75 percent, that amounts to an 8-percent bonus based on the sheer number of shifts being reimbursed versus the number of shifts worked on average per year,” Block said.

How is it that firefighters are so healthy?

Neither McLaughlin nor Assistant Chief David Morse had an answer. They said the department rigorously questions firefighters who take sick time and requires them to provide a physician’s note if they are sick for two or more consecutive days.

Might substitution also be used when a firefighter is not feeling well and, so as not to use a sick day and lose the pay it represents, he calls on a buddy to work for him?

“If you’re out sick, you’re out sick. We wouldn’t condone that,” McLaughlin said.

“I don’t believe that’s happening,” Morse said. “The department today has changed. It used to be easy to get guys to work for you.”

Reflecting, Morse said firefighters used to have “two families” – one at home and the other the department. He said firefighting has become “more of a job than a career,” without the same level of camaraderie and sense of family.

So, how is it, if firefighters are simply healthy, that the department consistently exceeds its overtime budget, frequently to the tune of more than $1.5 million a year?

McLaughlin explained that the department works with “six floaters” for every shift. These firefighters fill in for those on vacation, bereavement, parental leave, and who are absent for a variety of other reasons. When there are not sufficient floaters to cover absences and maintain minimum manning requirements set by contract, personnel are called in at time and a half. There is no breakout showing why overtime was used, and if it was used to pay for a firefighter on vacation or because he was out sick.

As of this year, the department is breaking out overtime costs as they pertain to additional training of personnel as funded by a federal grant.

Cote said he became interested in digging into the number of unused sick days after looking at the city’s budget for the last nine years. What popped out was the allocation for sick time and other leave. The amount was remarkably consistent and small in comparison to the department’s overall budget from year to year. The appropriation ranged from a low of $11,174 spent in fiscal year 2014-15 to a high of $22,389 in fiscal year 2010-11. As it turned out, McLaughlin explained, the line item that triggered Cote’s curiosity pertains to the unused sick time pay for civilian department personnel.

“I’ve been in business for myself for a long, long time,” Cote said, “and I know how to read balance sheets.”

Cote dug deeper. He submitted a series of public records requests looking for a list of department personnel, when they were hired, the number of sick days used, and the number of accrued unused sick days. He also obtained a list of all department members paid for unused sick days and the amounts for 2015.

The unused sick pay payback system, which is richer than any other municipal contract, got even more lucrative under the contract negotiated by the administration last May and approved by the City Council in mid-July after it was put in effect. In essence, the department was operating under a contract that had not been ratified.

The new agreement enriches the unused sick day payout by 50 percent. Prior to the agreement, those firefighters who had accumulated 140 unused sick days were paid for 10 of the 20 sick days allotted each year at the end of the year. Now they are paid for 15 days. Members of the administration and union representative William Lloyd negotiated the contract.

“Now in most work scenarios, if your workforce is not using sick days, that’s considered a really good thing, and it is. The twist in Warwick is that unused sick days get monetized; firefighters are given a cash bonus for not using their sick days,” Block said.

“What Warwick has done, is they’re allowing firefighters to bank 140 days, and once they bank those 140 days, instead of losing any additional unused sick time, they now allow firefighters to annually cash in any unused sick days that they have,” he continued.

In a recent interview where Block reviewed information obtained by Cote, Block dug into the contracts of other urban area departments, discovering that state law guarantees paid sick days for firefighters. He sees no reason for firefighter contracts to include sick day provisions. The law does not include a buy-back provision for unused sick leave.

In addition, under the provisions of the Warwick contract, the chief has the authority to determine if a sick day is to be docked from a firefighter’s accumulated sick days. Sick days used because of an injury sustained while on duty – say, a sprained ankle requiring physical therapy – are not deducted from the accrued days, thus not reducing the end of the year payment.

“Warwick has now perverted what the sick time was meant to be. Sick time was meant to be a safety net – if you got ill, your expenses are covered and your paycheck still flows to your family. But now what they’ve said is, they’re giving what I consider to be a ridiculous number of days, 20, given how few are actually being used, and now they’re paying bonuses for not using this excessive number of days. Nationally, the number of sick days given, on average, by employers to employees is 10,” Block said.

“It’s 8 percent of pay at the 75-percent reimbursement, so before the 75-percent reimbursement, it was 6 percent of pay. So taxpayers should have been told, and should have been aware, that on top of the 3-percent annual raises granted in this contract, there’s an extra 2-percent raise on top of that based on the bonus for the sick days. And that’s where the harm of this kind of contortion really comes in, that’s why I say it’s not transparent,” he continued.

“The question is, what’s changed with the job? How does anybody justify that level of compensation increase? It blows away the cost of inflation; it blows everything away. If they’re going to do it, own up to it and put it into the announced raises. This is where I get my ire up, as someone who aspires to get into politics; if you’re going to do something like that, you do it through the front door; you don’t do it through the back door.”

Looking at the long-range picture, Cote points out that as of Feb. 1 when he obtained the information, firefighters had accrued a total of 22,785 days that “eventually must be monetized and paid for by the taxpayers.”

Comments

24 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Thecaptain

Here are some points not specified in the article.

1. In the last contract the city allocated 13,200 sick days to the department based on the current 220 man crew. That's 4400 sick days per year. The line item in the budget that addresses sick time paid out, accounts for approximately 35 sick days per year. When asked about this, Chief McGlaughlin stated "that particular line item only applied to civilian fire personnel and not uniformed fire services". Currently, there is no line item in the budget that accounts for uniformed sick time. How is it tracked? Its not.

2. When the mayor, finance director, chief of staff, and the treasurer were asked how sick time was accounted for, no one could give any answers.

Currently the department has accrued 22,785 days of sick time (62.42 years) that has a net value (liability) of $8.47 million dollars that the taxpayer is obligated to. That number will increase by approximately 50 % due to the new contract specification. That value is not carried anywhere in the budget, yet we are obligated to pay it. How can that be? Incompetency at best.

3. When asked, 5 city council members never read the contract and were unaware of the changes to the "sick bonuses". Most disturbingly was councilman Gallucci when he commented when asked if he read the contract resolution - "why would I waste time reading a contract that I had no part of negotiating". Guess he forgot his obligation to his constituents.

4. The fiscal note attached to the contract resolution was incorrect. The numbers used to calculate the following years bonus was off by $100,000, and the overall budget impact is off almost $600,000. Guess they use an abacus to count with. Had anyone read the documents, they would have seen this. Only one councilmember voted against the contract.

5. Where is the distinguished finance chair Councilwoman Wilkinson? Simple math errors that she didn't catch, didn't read the documents, yet voted to pass the contract. Yet she seeks higher office. What a joke.

RIGL TITLE 45-19-1

The law allows for unlimited sick time for injury of illness contracted on the job. The city contract, in addition to state law, not only allows 20 sick days per year, also allows the chief to allocate additional sick time as he sees fit, and also stipulates that if the man becomes sick due to job duties that the sick day is not taken away off of his accrued time. So virtually no sick days are accounted for. Any cold, sniffle, flu, headache, hangover or whatever, can be attributed to on the job activity and the days are stacked up to be paid by us. It is a coordinated scheme of collusion that has been taking place for years and completely unnecessary.

Further, when asked what the procedure was for an employee to call out sick the response was that the employee contacts the battalion chief and the chief enters the information. When asked to supply the documents that the information was entered to, the response was returned "no documents exist". Who's on first?????

This policy exists for one reason and one reason only. It allows elected officials to pander to the unions to entrench themselves into the community. That is exactly what has happened in Warwick. It is outrageous that our city council is unable to perform simple math and understand the existing law. Is anyone really surprised?

Thursday, May 12, 2016
DougMartin

What would the city owe if they used their sick time, even half of it? Probably a lot more than what is currently spent. I'd be happy we don't have abuse of sick time.

Thursday, May 12, 2016
Thecaptain

You clearly don't understand the story. They are using sick time, it is not being reported, and it is being monetized as a bonus.

Thursday, May 12, 2016
DougMartin

So your saying they are calling in sick, no one is recording it and they are still getting paid?

Thursday, May 12, 2016
Thecaptain

That's exactly what I am saying and the documents obtained from the city suggest the same. Further, there are no documents to suggest otherwise.

Thursday, May 12, 2016
davebarry109

What is missing from this story is that the entire country has too many firefighters now. 30 years ago, firemen fought fires. Now, the bulk of calls if for medical reasons. 220 firemen in Warwick is outrageous. That is 40 more firemen than policmen. There was a Boston Globe article about this very topic. Calls have decreased dramatically but personnel levels remain high.

Thursday, May 12, 2016
Reality

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The Warwick City Councilor Fiddlers aka Fast Eddie Ladosceur, Vella-Wilkinson and Travis have done nothing about this egregious handout. Eddie, Camille and Donna all voted for this contract without asking a single question about this new million dollar obligation.

The dynamic trio has spent the last year castigating the school dept. while their own house burns. Maybe Eddie could call for another of his famous committees......I hope Karen Backus and Nathan Counell are available because they bring so much to the table. They are Eddie's ace relievers. It's laughable. I hope this committee doesn't take time away from Eddie's snow removal committee. Perish the thought.

The city council was tied up in knots because of Wilkinson's gun legislation but she has done nothing about the unfunded healthcare obligation of $360 million. Wilkinson as chair of the finance committee should have vetted this new contract provision that will cost the taxpayers millions but she treats her chairmanship as a hobby.

Time to replace Ladosceur, Wilkinson and Travis on the council.

Thursday, May 12, 2016
chuckbones

These guys deserve the extra that they are getting!! You try dealing with the bull that they see day in and day out!! Maybe give them a bonus for when they bring back a heroin OD, they will make triple the sick pay!! Instead of picking on city workers go follow the lawmakers at the state house if you want to find criminals,, try being a FF for a day or are you too scared???

Thursday, May 12, 2016
RISchadenfreude

"[McLaughlin & Assistant Chief David Morse] said the department rigorously questions firefighters who take sick time and requires them to provide a physician’s note if they are sick for two or more consecutive days"...nudge, nudge-wink,wink...

Another sweetheart union deal that has remained under the radar until now, largely due to the apathy of Warwick residents and complicity with unions of our elected officials and those appointed by them. The foxes are in the hen house- stop re-electing them and tolerating their incompetent, dishonest appointees.

But don't feel too bad- the rest of our cities and towns aren't faring much better.

Friday, May 13, 2016
DougMartin

Now that Stacia and Rob are on the case the city will surely be saved. LOL. I would hope anyone with half a brain realizes that this is not how the department is run Rob is not reporting facts at all. If in fact Rob was correct all department members would be guilty of fraud. State police should and would be called. Maybe there is a reason they aren't investigating? Probably because these two wing nuts only tell you 10% of the story. I implore all citizens to look into this and realized those two are spreading more lies. For what reason I will never understand.

Friday, May 13, 2016
Thecaptain

Mr. Martin,

No one other than myself is involved in this issue. No one other than myself has requested documents or performed research. All documents pertaining to this issue have come directly through the APRA procedure. The documents indicate what the story tells. No other documents exist to suggest otherwise. Unless of course the city is hiding documents, but that would be wrong and illegal, and we know that no one employed for the city would do such a thing.

Why don't you educate us all and speak to the technical issues of Title 45 and speak to the statistics of what the documents indicate. If you would like copies of the documents, just contact me and I will provide them. Cartaxrevolt@aol.com

Look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, May 13, 2016
DougMartin

Then I'll be waiting for the results of the state police investigaton, if indeed you are correct (I know your not) then they are all commiting fraud. Again this is not happening.

Friday, May 13, 2016
DougMartin

Firefighters use sick time they are abusers.. They don't use sick time they are scammers.. Can't be both Rob

Friday, May 13, 2016
Thecaptain

Doug,

You should have data before addressing a topic. Also, FYI, state police cannot enter into a municipal fiscal investigation unless invited by the mayor. Try to elevate the conversation to an intellectual level where you can be taken seriously and make a logical point that can be substantiated by documents. That's what I have done. Lets see what you can do (other than rant).

Friday, May 13, 2016
DougMartin

My point Rob is that no one will find wrong doing. You can keep making up lies but in the end all you will find is you wasted your time and made up stories.. Good day buddy...

Friday, May 13, 2016
Jodi62

Unless you are an employee of the state of RI or a city within, RI is not the place to plant your roots. Of course if you enjoy contributing to great health benefits, high salaries, great pensions for these employees then RI is the place for you. The citizens of Warwick enjoy receiving their tax bill's and rate increase's. They have no desire to get involved with city issues, it is clearly evident if one attends the monthly city meetings. No one is there. The one's who are there come every month and get belittled and talked down by the city council members, its a shame. Those attending are educated, bright and know exactly what is going on within the chamber walls and to those folks I say thank you for trying but it is a lost cause. Thank you Rob once again for reminding me why I left the RI recently and have not looked back since!!!!....

Friday, May 13, 2016
wwkvoter

Jodi, where did you move to and whats it like in regards to these issues? Most places have union workers in city and state jobs. How different could it be?

Saturday, May 14, 2016
PaulHuff

Sounds like Ken Block doesn't realize the difference between a person being sick with the flu, and an on the job injury.

An on the job injury the firefighter gets paid and it is not sick time. A firefighter with the flu uses a sick day.

Saturday, May 14, 2016
Thecaptain

Paul , you are incorrect. The city contract specifically states any injury "or illness" contracted on the job. Virtually every cold, sniffle, or sneeze is being attributed to illness on the job and due to that, the employee is not docked for the sick day. You should have data to reference when you make statements. 85 pages of data provided by the city substantiate a scheme derived by the employees and the collective bargaining documents. On the contrary there is not one page of data to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, there should not be monetization of sick leave for any reason.

Sunday, May 15, 2016
DougMartin

Rob, once again distorting any truth. No one in the history of the department has used a cold or Flu as an on the job illness. Furthermore the contract states illness "not voluntarily caused". Meaning hangovers don't qualify. Anybody who actually believes one word of what Rob is saying please look into this issue. Ask the city, ask the mayor, ask the chief, he is twisting the facts. Research the info for yourself. You and Ken are jokes everybody can see that.

Sunday, May 15, 2016
Thecaptain

Doug ,

For your edification, I didn't write the story. I simply provided documents. As for calling in sick. There was a time when 3 firefighters all lived together in a house on Royal Avenue in Narragansett. Those 3 firefighters called in sick numerous times from the bar stool of Twin Willows. Not only was it habit, it was common place. Maybe you just refuse to believe documents from the city. You should look at them . What email address can I send them to for your review. When the documents indicate that as a whole the department uses only a fraction of 1 sick day per year per man, what justification is there to allocate 20 days per man, 4400 days per year and 13,200 sick days per contract? Only an idiot would sign onto a contract like that, excuse me, an idiot or a politician, certainly not a businessman. By the way, ask the chief what his address was in Gannsett.

Sunday, May 15, 2016
DougMartin

Rob the last thing I wish to do is start a meaningless email conversation with someone of your relevance in this community. All I ask is that ANYONE READING THIS LOOK INTO THE ANSWERS YOURSELF. They are quite different then what the troll Rob is stating. Maybe he doesn't know how to ask the correct questions, maybe he doesn't want the truth because his story would be void, either way he has done nothing but report distorted information. Enjoy your weekend.

Sunday, May 15, 2016
Thecaptain

Well coward Doug,

Again it seems that you lack the mentality to understand that I did not write the story. I gathered the documents from your boss. But you don't want to see the documents. How can you expect to see the facts when you don't want to look at the official documents? Is it a reading comprehension problem? I understand that Ms. Travis has that issue but you too? The documents are public. Anyone that wants them just has to ask. I'm waiting.

Sunday, May 15, 2016
Thecaptain

One other thing that all taxpayers should know about. The Mayors tax increase totals 4.7 million dollars city wide. 114 firefighters have consumed 14.02 % of all of that tax increases just on the sick pay bonus alone. Everyone should be outraged about those numbers.

Sunday, May 15, 2016