Judge Rules Against TRO in North Kingstown Hail Mary Suit

It was over before it started. Actually it was over before we even found out about it! Recall the case filed last week by the town of North Kingstown seeking to stop the issuance of a Rhode Island State Labor Board ruling.

The Labor Board determined that the town had committed an unfair labor practice by increasing the hours of firefighters from 42 hours per week to 56 hours, and changing from 4 shifts to 3 shifts. The board was in the process of writing up its formal decision when the town sought a court order to block the issuance of the written decision. In the balance are millions of dollars of backpay to the firefighters for the extra hours they have worked but not been paid for.

The town’s suit was filed on August 26, 2013, and from news reports today, the case was decided on Wednesday, August 28, 2013 with Superior Court Justice Daniel Procaccini denying the town’s request for a temporary restraining order.

Town officials are promising to press their legal arguments once the ruling is issued. With millions of dollars in the balance, I’ll bet they are hoping to at least stretch things out for another election cycle.

Incidentally, in reading the “news” article about the case it dawned on me that one of the reasons the public does not understand just how onerous the town’s action has been – may be in part due to the way the facts are presented to them by the media. Take a look at this explanation:

In January 2012, the Town Council restructured the fire department into three divisions that work 24-hour shifts, followed by 48 hours off-duty. Firefighters had been working two, 10-hour days, followed by two, 14-hour night shifts and four days off.

Reading this the average person might say – what are those damn firefighters beefing about. So they go from 10 hour days and 14 hour nights to a 24 hour shift. What is the big deal. By my count they used to have to work 4 days a week, and now its only two days. And I have to work 5 to 6 days.

No where in the article is there any mention of an unnegotiated and uncompensated increase in hours from 42 to 56, nor the backpay that is continuing to accrue. Why would the media omit that kind of information?

Admittedly, the facts of this case are somewhat difficult for non-firefighters to readily understand. Days on, days off, 10 hours, 14 hours, 24 hours, callbacks, 4 days a week, 2 days a week, etc. etc. What does it all mean?

However, journalists typically pride themselves in their ability to hold elected officials accountable by pointing out important details that the public needs to know. What happens when the media helps contribute to a confusing situation – in essence giving cover to elected officials who choose to blatantly skirt the law?

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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