Firefighters' shift swapping comes under fire
Civilian critics of the Warwick Fire Department have released more information from their analytical deep dive into the department’s shift activity from FY17, and this time they have targeted the practice of how firefighters swap shifts for one another to, they say, preserve sick time and extend time off for themselves.
Ken Block, chairman of Watchdog RI, and Rob Cote, a Warwick resident well known for his critiques of the Warwick Fire Department, digitized data from July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2017 that tracks shift data for firefighters – such as which firefighters were on or off duty, which ones called in sick or were on vacation, and so on.
Also included within this data is when a firefighter has asked another firefighter to cover their shift for them in lieu of taking a sick or vacation day. The practice, known simply as a change of shift, is a practice by which a firefighter can swap shift duties with another firefighter based on the agreement between the two that the firefighter covering the shift will be reciprocated at some point in the future by the firefighter who had his or her shift covered.
While changes of shift incur no immediate additional cost to the city – firefighters who cover the shifts are not compensated officially, and the firefighter who swaps the shift is paid as though they worked – Block and Cote’s data from FY17 showed that, of 1,539 changes of shift that occurred, 206 shifts were not reciprocated in that same time span. This means that in that span, there were 206 shifts where a firefighter was paid for being on duty despite not working that day, and the firefighter covering for him was not compensated.
So what is the incentive for a firefighter to work a shift for a colleague despite there being no overt incentive – and even a possible detriment – to do so? Union representatives say it is a simple honor system where firefighters have one another’s backs in the event something unexpected comes up.
“At some point you’re going to need one,” said Brandon Ingegneri, treasurer of the Warwick Firefighter’s Union IAFF Local 2748. “And not every guy does them. There are guys that don’t sign up for other people’s change of shift unless they know they’ll need a day.”
Michael DeFusco, vice president of the union, said that language outlining changes of shift were included in the fire department’s most recent contract – which is due to expire in June – but that there were no limitations set on the number of changes of shifts firefighters could request and no provisions setting a time limit on when those changes of shift had to be reciprocated. However, he believes the give-and-take nature of the policy prevents outright abuse of the system.
“They do get paid back,” he said. “There is no time limit when you have to pay them back, but we are very tight knit group. We are all pretty much friendly together from the administration on down. There is nobody that is going to say you work 20 shifts for me and I’m not paying you back. It does not happen.”
Ingegneri provided an example of when he swapped shifts with someone in early 2016 only to suffer a serious injury from a motorcycle accident a short time later. He wasn’t able to reciprocate that shift change until over a year later, once he was able to return to full duty. But he paid it back.
“That person would become a pariah if they did [not reciprocate a change of shift],” he said.
Cote asserts that not having any official written policy regarding how many changes of shift can be utilized and when they need to be reciprocated means it is not an official policy, and is in violation of the city's charter.
Change of shift procedures have come under fire in other communities in recent years.
In 2011 the Boston Globe published an expose that reviewed widespread inequity in the number of shifts that were swapped versus shifts reciprocated. In one case a firefighter owed 554 shifts, approximately three years of shifts, to others who had covered for him. This firefighter resigned but was eventually rehired, wiping that slate of time owed clean.
In 2018, the Kansas City Star published a piece which outlined nearly $1 million in dollars being paid to firefighters who traded shifts, many of whom exceeded their capped limit on shift trading. In this report and in the Globe’s, the practice of paying fellow firefighters under the table in exchange for covering a shift was reported by firefighters, though no physical accounting of this behavior was presented. Block and Cote have produced no evidence of under the table pay occurring in Warwick.
Cote and Block have shown through their data gathering, however, that firefighters utilize change of shifts to extend vacations.
One firefighter, whose name has been redacted, worked only 95 shifts in the 11-month span of the data as opposed to 64 days off through vacation, changes of shift and sick leave. In December of 2016, the firefighter utilized four consecutive changes of shift, worked one shift, then utilized a sick personal leave day and six more changes of shifts to get nearly 29 consecutive shifts off (including scheduled time off).
The same firefighter, later in April of 2017, only worked three on-duty shifts the entire month. The firefighter utilized a vacation day, change of shift and sick day on April 7, 8 and 9, followed by a series of vacation days and three more changes of shifts to nearly 31 days off in a row (including scheduled time off).
Block asserts that nearly half of the changes of shifts taken by firefighters occur in pairs, and others are often taken on either end of their scheduled four days off – creating six-day “mini vacations” where firefighters do not need to utilize their actual vacation time.
“I think the details are indicative of the type of problem that is embedded in this fire department,” Block said.
Union reps, however, don’t deny that changes of shifts are utilized for vacation purposes, among other reasons.
“There are guys who utilize it for vacation,” Ingegneri said. “We’ve also had individuals in the past who have had terminally ill children that have had to get treatment in Boston, and they’ve utilized changes of shift for things like that. Even something as simple as if I have a wedding on Friday night and I’m on duty and can’t get a vacation day, okay, you work Friday and I’ll work Saturday for you. Most of the time it’s like that. Are there times where it’s done in blocks? Yes. Is it commonplace? I’d say just as common as individual days or nights.”
More of an issue to Block and Cote than prolonging vacations, however, is their allegation that changes of shift can be utilized to preserve vacation time and sick time – the latter of which can be banked and monetized later on in a firefighter’s career.
However the union says this practice does not occur.
“When you’re sick, you use a sick day,” Ingegneri said. “I don’t know personally of any person that has been sick that said they’re going to take a change of shift.”
While the data reflects an imbalance in time borrowed through changes of shift versus time paid back, DeFusco denied any widespread abuse of the system.
“We do not believe there is anybody violating any of the policies of the fire department,” he said. “I can’t speak to what happened in Boston, but we follow our policy and our contract and that’s what we stand for… Our contract has stuff in it that was negotiated years before I was around. We don’t want to lose stuff because people abuse the system, so we do not do that.”
“If there is any overt ‘abuse’ of the system, someone is going to get called upstairs and they’re going to have a talking to, and we’re going to recommend they make sure they pay those days back or vice versa,” Ingegneri said. Details driving overtime?
The second part of Block and Cote’s recent release targets practices regarding how firefighters are assigned to activities that are described generally as “detailed out,” which they assert forces other firefighters to come in and work at time and a half, driving about $80,000 in unnecessary overtime costs annually.
Of 162 “detailed out” shifts cataloged in their FY17 data, 154 were given to firefighters who were already working an on-duty shift.
“This is the whole department collectively acting against the interests of the taxpayers,” Block said. “This should not be allowed.”
However, the union said the data is misleading, as many detailed out shifts are reimbursed by the federal government through grants, such as cases where firefighters are trained on hazmat, technical rescue and rescue diving practices.
“If the three of us are detailed out for a hazmat training that we’re getting federal reimbursement for, that would be in the overtime budget, but it should not be,” DeFusco said. “It should be a separate line item and have its own code. Because it’s not an overtime cost, it’s money that will be reimbursed by the federal government.”
The Warwick Fire Department has overspent its allotted overtime budget every year since FY03 (when the city began uploading its budgets to its website). Since FY03, the department has exceeded budget on overtime by a total of $7,918,643.
Despite hiring 24 new recruits in February of last year, a move which fire administrators said would drastically cut down on overtime costs, the fire department is projected to spend about $270,000 more on overtime costs this year than in FY17. The union representatives stated overtime costs this year have been extenuated by a higher number of on-the-job injuries and retirements, though they did not provide numbers to corroborate this statement.
Acting Fire Chief Marcel Fontenault did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Block and Cote continue to go through the data, and have identified other issues pertaining to the department’s accounting and banking of sick days, though they have not made an official release of this data at this time.
Union president Michael Carreiro said that Block and Cote were right to be asking questions, but that they should be careful to consider multiple sides to the issues.
“It’s great that they’re doing this and looking out for the taxpayers, but you always have to look for both sides,” he said.