Wake County

‘Robbing Peter to pay Peter’ – some Raleigh first responders unhappy with benefits changes

Some Raleigh police officers and firefighters are unhappy about changes to the city’s benefits plan that would reduce their holiday pay and vacation time.

The city council in May approved a pay increase for first responders. But while they’re happy with the boost, first responders don’t like the benefits changes set to take effect Oct 1.

Chief among them – a reduction in the number of hours they would get time and a half pay on holidays. Police and firefighters leaders typically work 12-hour shifts and would get the holiday pay for only eight of those hours. The way vacation time is accrued also would change.

“You’ve heard the old saying, ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul?’ ” asked Jamie Rigsbee, vice president of the Raleigh chapter of the N.C. Police Benevolent Association. “This was robbing Peter to pay Peter. They are saving money on the money they just gave us.”

But Rick Armstrong, a spokesman with the Raleigh Police Protective Association and a member of the city’s civil service commission, said Friday he thinks the concerns will be resolved in recommendations that the commission will present to the city council on Sept. 19.

“The holiday pay was the biggest concern,” Armstrong said. “To expect police officers and firefighters to work at the regular rate of pay is not fair. Eight hours is eight hours, 10 hours is 10 hours, 12 hours is 12 hours. We are not asking for anything more. Just maintain the current level of benefits. If you do the work, you should be compensated for it.”

Raleigh Fire Department Lt. Ian Griffin, a member of Raleigh Firefighters United, attended the Thursday meeting where the civil service commission unanimously voted to submit a list of recommended policy changes to the city council. But he said he’s not convinced that the council will change the benefits plan.

“They can still turn us down,” Griffin said.

Armstrong said he did not blame anyone for the curtailing of employee benefits, which he described as an oversight. Rigsbee and Griffin were not so charitable. Rigsbee said police union leaders are wary of the city’s intentions.

“In our opinion, the city tried to pull a fast one,” he said.

On Sept. 5, during the city council’s regularly scheduled meeting, members of the human resources department submitted a consent agenda that listed changes in employee benefits. It had been 13 years since the city had last looked at its employee pay structure, with the last policy change happening in 1984.

“The city council voted for it unanimously,” Rigsbee said. “But when the benefits changes were brought to their attention, it was obvious that they hadn’t read what they voted on.”

Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, sent out a news release Thursday in which he blamed the city council, which does not have any Republicans among its ranks, for a “debacle.”

“It is incomprehensible that the Raleigh City Council would hose our firefighters and police like this,” Hellwig wrote.

Griffin is a 36-year-old married father of two children. He moved from Michigan nine years ago to accept a position with the fire department. He said even though he wasn’t making a lot of money when he started, he figured there would be opportunities for merit raises by being a good employee.

“I’ve held up my end of the bargain,” he said.

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald