The Gathering Storm over what we pay our public servants

Posted August 24, 2013

This week the public prints published a story that made my toes curl.

It proclaimed that for the first time in 20 years, the City and the Guelph firemen were going to arbitration to settle a new contract. The reason given was the two sides needed assistance to formulate a new contract.

Guelph’s firemen are among the highest paid in the province. A first class fireman earns a base salary of $85,542 a year. They achieved this level through a number of years negotiating with the city. Obviously they have done very well.

But that’s only part of the story. In addition, the firemen receive overtime pay, sick leave benefits, shared pension benefits, insurance, disability protection, paid equipment, plus work place benefits that no other city employee receives.

The biggest benefit is the way they work. Firemen work 24-hour shifts that average twice each seven days. They are scheduled to work 42 hours a week so there are adjustments to maintain the total number of straight time worked.

As one labour expert said: “Firemen enjoy the best paid, part-time job in the province.”

The union head is quoted that city employees only work 35 hours a week so the average current $39 per hour cost of the firemen should be more because they work more hours.

But some of those 24–hour shifts are spent sleeping, watching TV and cooking. Of course they are on standby to answer calls. Other city employees do not get paid for those hours. So bringing that up is specious to say the least.

Police officers perform their duties working seven-hours a day, 35-hour shifts per week. Their responsibilities are no less dangerous than that of the fire department.

But something has happened to the work responsibilities of the fire department in recent years. Less that ten per cent of their calls are actually for fighting fires. The introduction of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) has changed the role of the firemen. The trouble is there is a turf war going on between the two services as each works to justify its existence and remuneration.

If the truth were known, the two services should have been amalgamated years ago.

The fact that most firemen retire at an average age of 56, places an even greater burden on the taxpayer who must guarantee pension and healthcare benefits for the rest of the retiree’s life, including his or her spouse.
With the current average lifespan of Canadian males being 83 that represent a 27-year indexed pension benefit for firemen who retire today at 56.

After only 10 negotiating sessions between the city and the firemen’s union, the city pulled the plug and applied for a three-member board of arbitration to determine a binding new contract. Each side nominates a member and a chairman is appointed. The cost of this procedure will be expensive and time consuming because it usually involves members who are lawyers who also represent other clients.

As usual, the taxpayers paying the bills are left out of the picture. There are no details of the union’s requests for changes in the contract, nor the city’s counter-offer, if there ever was one.

Having been involved in union/management contract negotiations, serving on both sides of the fence during my career, only 10 bargaining sessions indicates neither side was prepared to reach agreement. There seems to be a lack of creative conciliation that could have led to a settlement.

City spokesman, Mark Amorosi, said the union’s demands were “excessive, unaffordable and not fair to taxpayers.” He went on to say if the union proposals were adopted, it would give firemen greater benefits that any other employee group employed by the city.

The good news is that the city administration is starting to hear the taxpayers lament that the public servants’ contracts are out of control. As such, those costs are rising at an alarming rate that will affect taxpayers for years to come.

Don’t expect the outcome of this arbitration to be satisfying. The costs of the arbitration panel and the resulting retroactive pay will be a staggering blow to the city’s finances within the next three years.

You heard it here first.

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