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When the City of Central Falls filed for bankruptcy on Aug. 1, Robert Flanders Jr., the state-appointed receiver, said in court documents that collective bargaining agreements with police, fire and municipal employees’ unions were interfering with the city’s efforts to reduce expenses through outsourcing, privatization and sharing services.
The next day, Joseph Andriole, vice president of the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters, defended Central Falls firefighters -- and their contract with the city.
In a story by WPRI-Channel 12 on the station’s web site, Andriole, who has been negotiating with Flanders, is quoted as saying that Central Falls’ small size belies its big-city challenges for firefighters. The one-square mile, densely populated city is filled with old mills and aging triple-deckers.
Central Falls firefighters are among the "hardest working" in the state, Andriole said. "When you look at what they get paid, they are one of the lowest, if not the lowest, paid fire departments in the state and entire region."
We wondered if that was true. So we decided to check it out.
First, we called Andriole, who faxed us a three-page chart he and the union’s business manager use in contract negotiations which shows the annual wages for 33 Rhode Island fire districts whose firefighters have union contracts.
The list compares the top "base pay" rate for firefighters. These "Private First-Class" firefighters comprise the bulk of most local forces. (Firefighters with less than a year on the job typically earn less; lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs and other officers earn more.)
In Central Falls, the top base pay for those firefighters is $44,892.08 per year. (That’s after the state-receiver this month reinstated a 2 percent pay raise that the firefighters had agreed to forgo last January.)
Based on the union’s list, Central Falls appears to have one of the lowest base pay rates in Rhode Island. (We spot-checked the list for accuracy.)
We found two fire districts where the base pay was lower than in Central Falls: North Providence ($90 a year less) and the Lime Rock Fire Department in Lincoln ($1,200 a year less).
The firefighters with the highest base pay on Andriole’s list are in Warwick, where the top base pay rate as of July was $62,422.
But the comparison leaves out other compensation, including one of the biggest pay boosters: overtime.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Central Falls firefighters received a total of $545,339 in overtime pay -- an average of about $13,300 per firefighter. (The overtime pay in fiscal 2009 and 2010 averaged about $413,000, or roughly $10,000 per firefighter.) Short-staffing tends to drive up overtime pay because of minimum-staffing rules.
Central Falls isn’t unusual in that regard. In North Providence, overtime pay for firefighters during the same period was roughly $21,000, on average, per firefighter -- more than double the average in Central Falls.
But Andriole says that overtime shouldn’t be factored into the pay comparisons, since it’s not guaranteed. He conceded, though, that one could argue that other forms of pay guaranteed under union contracts -- such as longevity, holiday pay -- should be included.
Central Falls firefighters with five years on the job get longevity pay of $1,500 a year. Those with 20 or more years on the job get $3,000 a year.
And then there’s holiday pay. Central Falls firefighters currently get an additional 10 paid holidays a year, or roughly $2,100 a year.
Firefighters also get annual allowances for uniforms and, in some cases, clothing.
Until recently, Central Falls firefighters got a uniform allowance of $975 a year plus a $1,000 a year clothing allowance. (The uniform allowance was recently eliminated under an agreement between the firefighters’ union and the state-appointed receiver.)
So if you add in overtime, holiday pay, longevity pay and clothing allowances, the annual pay for a firefighter in Central Falls with five years on the job climbs to more than $58,000 a year.
That’s significantly more, for example, than firefighters in the Lime Rock Fire Department in neighboring Lincoln.
Lime Rock is one of two fire districts in the town with paid firefighters; the others are all volunteer. The department responds to about 600 to 650 fire calls per year -- just under half of the calls the Central Falls department handles.
Lime Rock’s top-paid privates earn $43,680 per year. No overtime. No longevity pay. And their uniform allowance is $700.
As far as how Central Falls firefighters’ pay stacks up with the rest of the region, that’s harder to say.
(Nationally, the median annual income for firefighters last year was $45,250 -- $358 more than the Central Falls’ base pay -- according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
By "region," Andriole explained, he’d meant Massachusetts and Connecticut. We found no master lists, but did some spot-checks.
The base pay for firefighters in Hartford, Conn., -- a city more than six times the size of Central Falls -- is $45,857. That’s $965 a year more than Central Falls firefighters are paid. After five years, Hartford firefighters’ base pay rises to $68,073 -- $10,000 more than in Central Falls.
The base pay for firefighters in Holyoke, Mass., -- an old mill city similar to Central Falls, -- is $49,011 -- about $4,100 more than in Central Falls.
But Holyoke’s firefighters earned, on average, less than half of what firefighters in Central Falls earned during each of the last three fiscal years in in overtime pay.
The point is that firefighters can, and often do, earn a lot more than their "base pay."
In short, Andriole was right when he said that Central Falls firefighters’ pay is among the lowest in the state and region -- but he was talking only about base pay.
He left out some important context - namely, all of the other compensation firefighters receive -- which is why we rate his statement Mostly True.
Wpri.com, "CF consolidation talks ongoing," Aug.2, 2011, accessed Aug. 4, 2011
Interviews and e-mails, Marc Gursky, labor lawyer representing the Central Falls firefighters union, Aug. 15,16, 2011
Interviews, Joseph A. Andriole, vice president of the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters, Aug. 22, 2011
Interview, Cumberland’s Valley Falls Fire Chief Brian Jackvony, Aug. 22, 2011
Interview, Narragansett Fire Chief James Cotter, Aug. 24, 2011
Interview, Town of Lincoln’s Lime Rock Fire Chief Frank M. Sylvester, Aug. 22, 23
E-mails,Town of Lincoln’s Albion Fire Chief Richard Andrews, Aug. 23
Interviews and e-mails, Sarah Barr, spokeswoman for Hartford, Conn. mayor’s office, Aug. 22, 23, 24
Interviews and e-mails, Gayle A. Corrigan, chief of staff for the state-appointed receiver in Central Falls, Aug. 16, 25, 2011
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