Raleigh firefighters angry at sudden cuts to benefits

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They may be the first to respond to a fire or medical emergency, but apparently, they were the last to find out about a major shift in city policy. (WTVD)

They may be the first to respond to a fire or medical emergency, but apparently, they were the last to find out about a major shift in city policy.

"It seems like it was done in a backroom deal," Nicholas Rhodes, a Raleigh firefighter and ranking member of the Raleigh Professional Firefighters Association, lamented to ABC11. "It was a low blow to us when we found out about it. It was a kick in the teeth, and there are a lot of us who are frustrated and angry and want some answers and explanation."

Rhodes, a 15 year veteran of the Raleigh Fire Department, acknowledged that the City of Raleigh approved a pay raise for firefighters but pointed to recent actions that he said cut their vacation time, holiday pay, and enforces stricter rules on sick days.

"We work 24-hour shifts," Rhodes explained. "A lot of us leave work and go back to work at part-time jobs or side businesses. Vacation time and time off - that's important to us and more so to our families."

Specifically, the new policy demands that all firefighters earn one 12-hour vacation day every month worked, and since firefighters work 24-hours, a "full" vacation day actually requires two. The former policy increased vacation time earnings based on seniority.

Rhodes, at 15 years, had earned 1.75 vacation days every month.

"This is not what we signed up for," Rhodes said.

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In regards to holiday pay, the new policy reduces pay from 16 to eight hours, which again, is significant for firefighters working 24-hour shifts.

Adding to the controversy - and confusion - is the way in which the policy was approved unanimously by members of the Raleigh City Council: City Manager Ruffin Hall filed the proposal under the "Consent Agenda" section at the council's September 5 meeting.

According to the City of Raleigh website, consent agenda items are "considered to be routine and may be enacted by one motion."

Council member David Cox, who initially voted "yes" to pass the consent agenda item, was later so embarrassed by his vote that he spent the weekend visiting nearly a dozen fire stations to apologize.

"I certainly want to roll back the damage that was done," Cox asserted to ABC11. "I come from a blue collar family. There was no way I was ever going to support taking benefits away from our first responders."

Instead, Cox said, council members assumed they were simply voting on the general pay raise proposal, which had been in the works for nearly two years.

"I want to find out where this misunderstanding came from," Cox said.

Hall did not respond to calls from ABC11. In a statement, a City of Raleigh spokesman told ABC11:

"The City of Raleigh has undergone a significant Compensation System overhaul over the past two years. The new system resulted in significant pay raises for the majority of the City staff, including police and fire. The policies that were unanimously adopted at the last council meeting were intended to address some inconsistencies we have across our organization. Staff is currently working on providing potential amendments to the policies that will be presented to the City Council to help clarify any misinformation."

The new policy is scheduled to take effect on October 1; the Raleigh City Council will meet again on September 19.
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