Raleigh firefighters fuming over changes to city time-off policies
Posted September 14
Updated September 15
Raleigh, N.C. — After Raleigh firefighters criticized cuts to the time off they earn for vacation and sick leave, a city panel recommended Thursday to undo recent changes to leave policies for city workers.
The City Council last week approved without debate changes to various employment policies, from job classifications to performance reviews to paid leave, that officials said was part of the two-year overhaul of the pay structure for Raleigh city workers.
But firefighters argued the changes were in retaliation for their months of public lobbying for raises, which they say embarrassed city officials.
"It is obvious that the majority of this council, led by Mayor (Nancy) McFarlane, does not care about public safety employees and are specifically targeting us and punishing us for blemishing their image over the past year," Nick Rhodes, a spokesman for the Raleigh Professional Firefighters Association, said in a Facebook post.
The City Council raised starting salaries for firefighters from $33,654 to $39,200 this year, which officials said is the highest starting salary in any municipality in the Triangle. Veteran firefighters also received a pay boost in the city budget.
Rhodes said firefighters felt blindsided by the changes to leave policies.
"We never knew this was on the table or that it was being looked at," he said Thursday. "It feels like we were betrayed. It feels like they gave with one hand and took from the other. They're trying to put out this perception to the public that we're getting huge pay raises, but at the same time, they're taking benefits away from us."
Robert Harris, president of the local chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, agreed.
"People join city government job for the benefits. These benefit cuts affect everyone from the top down in every department within the city," Harris said in a statement. "It is very disappointing that the city would try and take away from the people who give everything to this city. We miss holidays, birthdays and many other important family events while serving the city."
The changes include eliminating years of service when calculating how much vacation time firefighters earn each month. Under the new policy, every firefighter gets 12 hours off per month worked, but Rhodes notes that firefighters work 24-hour shifts, so they have to use two vacation days to get a day off.
Firefighters get only eight hours of pay for holidays, and if they have to work both the actual holiday and the city's designated day off – if Christmas is on a Saturday or Sunday, for example, the city will designate a weekday to close its offices – they will get bonus pay for only one of the two and regular pay for the other.
Rhodes also noted that many firefighters work part-time jobs when off duty to make ends meet, and Raleigh's new policies prevent them from using city sick leave if they get hurt or sick on their second jobs.
Councilman David Cox said he didn't understand the impact of the changes when he voted for them.
"We're all only human, so when something like this happens, we have to take a step back, take a deep breath, go over it and fix it," said Cox , who personally visited 12 fire stations around Raleigh over the past week to listen to firefighters' concerns.
"My position is that I'm not taking benefits away from anybody," he said. "We need to have a more public discussion about these things rather than treat it as a business-as-usual item."
Raleigh spokesman John Boyette said the policy changes "were intended to address some inconsistencies we have across our organization" from the compensation system overhaul.
City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin was among those who support the changes. She said they were vetted for two years.
"I think it's a good plan. I think it's a great plan," Baldwin said. "I think it's a very generous plan, and I think it's very fair. Are there some tweaks that needed to be made? Yes."
McFarlane said the firefighters' criticisms were because of "misinterpretation."
"A lot of it is confusion, but we're checking on everything. We've heard all the concerns," she said, adding that city staffers will publicly explain the new policies during next Tuesday's City Council meeting.
But Raleigh's Civil Service Commission on Thursday recommended that the council restore many of the leave benefits to city workers.
"I think it would be a strong recommendation, at least from me, that they take a hard look at this before they rescind any of the benefits from police or firefighters," said Rick Armstrong, a member of the Civil Service Commission and vice president of Teamsters Local 391, which represents the Raleigh Police Protective Association.