Wake County

Raleigh City Council reverses course and restores benefits for first responders

Two weeks ago, city council members raised the ire of police officers and firefighters with a unanimous vote that would have changed the city’s employee benefits plan and reduced their holiday pay and vacation time.

But on Tuesday, after an apology to city employees from City Manager Ruffin Hall, the mayor and council members unanimously approved an amended benefits plan. It will increase the number of hours the city’s first responders are paid for holidays and how they accrue vacation time, along with changes to their sick leave policy.

Unease over the benefits changes happened shortly after the council’s regular meeting on Sept. 5, when members of the human resources department submitted a consent agenda item that listed changes in employee benefits. The changes were scheduled to take effect Oct. 1 and would align with a pay increase that council members approved in May.

The changes included a reduction in the number of hours that city employees would get time-and-a-half pay on holidays. Firefighters typically work 24-hour shifts, while police work 12-hour shifts. Under the old plan first responders would get holiday pay for only eight of those hours. With the new plan, first responders will be paid double time and a half for up to 12 hours physically worked.

The way vacation time is accrued also would have been affected. The city’s human resources department had previously recommended a 36-hour cap on banked holiday time, but members of the city’s Civil Service Commission recommended an unlimited accrual of unused vacation time. Council members ultimately opted for a provision that would enable the human resources staff to cap accrued vacation time at 96 hours.

“There were some concerns with the council about a big payout,” said Damien Graham, the city’s communications director.

Tuesday’s vote also removed from the benefits plan a new policy that would have prohibited city employees from earning sick leave if they were injured while working a second job.

After the vote earlier this month, some firefighters and police officers rallied to get council members to change their minds. Last week, council members met with the Civil Service Commission, who recommended changes. Most of those recommendations came to fruition Tuesday.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane assured the city’s first responders they would be compensated for the hours they work on holidays

“You’ll be paid for the shift you work,” McFarlane said after the vote. “In other words, if you work 12 hours you’ll be paid for a 12-hour shift.”

Matt Cooper, president of the Raleigh Police Protective Association, was elated after the vote.

“We look forward to coming together with a city council that’s listening to the needs of the community, to prevent these things from happening in the future,” Cooper said. “The mayor, she wanted to understand. I’m not playing the blame game. We just wanted it to be fixed.”

The regularly scheduled city council meeting garnered a great deal of interest. A near-capacity audience of first responders gathered in the council chambers, including Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown, Deputy Police Chief J.C. Perry and Fire Chief John McGrath.

Hall, the city manager, said there was “never any interest to mislead or hide information” during the Sept. 5 meeting when the benefits plan was first presented.

“That’s not how we do business,” he said. “I apologize for any misinformation or confusion that this has caused. I take full responsibility for that. That’s the role of the city manager, and I take full responsibility for that.”

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald