Firefighters still without contract after four years

ImageThe president of the Ottawa Professional Firefighters Association says a four-year contract squabble with the city over salaries is causing financial uncertainty for firefighters and damaging employee morale.

“Every day we keep responding to fires and doing the job we can to the best of our ability and yet our pay hasn’t changed in four years,” said Peter Kennedy.

“We are getting paid upwards of 30 per cent less than Toronto’s firefighters who have the same years of service.”

The two parties are currently in arbitration to produce a new collective agreement to replace the one that expired on Dec. 31, 2003. Legislative requirements forced the union and city to go to arbitration after more than two years of failed negotiations.

Without a contract, Kennedy said senior firefighters aren’t able to estimate their pension earnings and as a result are delaying retirement. This means in the last few years there have been fewer promotions and new hires.

While there are more than 50 issues on the arbitration table, Kennedy said the firefighters are primarily calling for improved wages and benefits.

He said the firefighters want to secure what is known as "responsibility pay” – the same pay increases received by police in Ottawa and firefighters across the province. The amount of responsibility pay earned depends on years of service.

“Essentially, we’d like to have our wage adjusted upwards and getting the responsibility pay would be our Christmas gift,” Kennedy said. “Unfortunately, it probably won’t come until next Christmas.”

Lyn Hunt, manager of labour relations said the city has been equally frustrated with the lengthy process. She did not offer the city’s view on responsibility pay.

“If that’s what the arbitrator awards, it will be paid,” Hunt said.

She added that city officials are awaiting the arbitrator’s decision, but noted it’s not uncommon for the process to take so long.

“Peterborough has been waiting three years for an award and the arbitrator has just asked if they wanted to make more submissions. It’s a very negative thing, but it’s not unusual either."

Last month, Ottawa’s corporate services and economic development committee awarded the firefighters a $5,000 advance payment that will be applied against the settlement. The city made a similar $7,500 advance payment in the summer of 2006.

Capital Ward Coun. Clive Doucet said he supports the payments.

“You have to recognize there’s some responsibility to not be tardy in your dealings with employees,” Doucet said.

He said while the positions taken by the firefighters’ and the city are reasonable, the problem is that they are in direct conflict.

“There’s a lot of money on the line and a lot of tension around it,” said Doucet. “With the pressure to keep taxes down all the time, there is a huge pressure on the city to reduce the cost of delivering services.”

Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the community and protective services committee, would not disclose the amount of money at stake, but said she’s concerned about the cost to taxpayers for all the city’s emergency services.

Deans said because hefty awards are distributed for emergency services in other Ontario cities, it makes it very difficult for Ottawa.

“The work the firefighters do is very important to our community,” Deans said. “The balance is trying to ensure taxpayers are getting value for every dollar we spend and that we are living within our means. That’s the trick.”