Firefighters hire accountant to review sick pay
*This article has been updated to correct the amount of alleged overpayment of sick time
With allegations swirling that Warwick firefighters are “gaming” unused sick time to get more pay than they deserve, the Warwick Firefighters Union has hired an independent accountant to review records and either validate the system or find flaws with it.
Meanwhile, the City Council is proceeding with an audit of payments following allegations by Warwick resident Rob Cote that many department personnel, including administrators and firefighters, are unjustly being paid for unused sick time, costing taxpayers what Cote calculated to be $247,850 over the course of three years.
“We believe we were doing it right all along,” Michael Carreiro, president of Warwick Firefighters Local 2748, said Tuesday. To determine if that’s the case, Carreiro said the union has retained Ward, Fisher and Company LLC of Warwick to review the last three years of unused sick time payouts. Carreiro said firefighters don’t fill out time sheets, a job done by the chief’s secretary who then submits them to the city finance department for payment.
Why not wait to learn what the council audit finds?
Carreiro said the union doesn’t know the depth of the council probe and the union’s concern is focused on how its members are handling the process. He didn’t have an estimated cost for the accounting work being done or when it might be completed.
Carreiro said the city has ceased making monthly payments for unused sick time and that the union has filed a grievance. He said the union offered to revert to annual payments, but the city refused.
The union has been without a contract since July 1, but talks soured in May when bargaining sessions broke off. Seen as critical to reaching an agreement is the union’s claim that the firefighters did not agree to implementation of a Tier II pension plan that reduced benefits for new hires after 2015. Police and municipal employees agreed to the Tier II plan and at the time it was understood firefighters had signed on. However, after implementation of the system, the union challenged the reduction in benefits for a cohort of newly hired firefighters. The city was prepared to take the matter to superior court, but the court recommended interest arbitration.
That process concluded earlier this summer and a ruling is expected shortly.
As for the matter of a contract, that, too, is expected to go to interest arbitration. Carreiro anticipates that process to start this month.
Carreiro is hopeful the union’s review of payment for unused sick time “clears up any misinformation.” Firefighters receive 20 paid sick days annually. After banking 140 unused sick days, they are paid for 75 percent of the sick days they don’t use in a given year. Thus a firefighter who doesn’t use any of the 20 days in a year would receive pay for 15 days.
Cote, who has obtained department time and payroll records, which he has shared with the City Council, alleges by the swapping of shifts and record keeping, firefighters are “gaming” the system to collect payment for sick days they don’t deserve.
Cote started digging into the system of payment for unused sick time several years ago. He teamed up with Ken Block, founder of Watch Dog RI and former Republican candidate for governor. In his analysis of department sick time sheets, which was reported in previous Beacon stories, Block found many firefighters were getting paid the maximum amount of sick time (equivalent to 1.25 days’ worth of pay, which may be monetized monthly) even when they utilize a sick day during the month. In some cases, the sick banks of firefighters fluctuate wildly from one month to the next, including cases where firefighters with 140 days in the bank inexplicably drop down into the 70s, and others that go from lower numbers to 140.
In June the council retained the Providence accounting firm Yarlas, Kaplan, Santilli, Moran (YKSM) to perform its audit, however correspondence shared with the Beacon and acquired by Cote through an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request has indicated that the city, through city solicitor Peter Ruggiero, required YKSM to sign a nondisclosure agreement regarding that audit, meaning that the results of their analysis may not be privy to the public upon its completion.