City drops legal case against firefighters

Whitehorse firefighters are finally getting a raise. The city crews, including officers, dispatch workers and volunteers, have been without a contract since December 31, 2006.

Whitehorse firefighters are finally getting a raise.

The city crews, including officers, dispatch workers and volunteers, have been without a contract since December 31, 2006.

About a year ago, they won a pay increase through arbitration.

The city took that decision to court.

“Two weeks ago, the employer came to their senses and realized that we were right and they’ve now dropped their case,” said Lorne West, vice-president of the International Association of Fire Fighters and lead negotiator for the Whitehorse crew.

“As a result of their litigation, they are now required to pay the firefighters retroactively the rates for ‘07, ‘08 and ‘09, plus interest.”

With court fees included, West is sure the city will end up paying upwards of two or three times what the arbitration reward would have originally cost.

The city has not figured out how much the settlement will cost.

“They’re still actually calculating that,” said Dennis Schewfelt, who manages the city. “Obviously those calculations have to be done, but I’m not sure where we are.”

West didn’t have a number handy either but, from memory, he says generally the arbitration awarded a five per cent raise each year from the average $63,000 annual salary firefighters were getting in 2006.

There are about 24 firefighters, says Schewfelt.

Using the back of a napkin, a rough estimate of the cost of settling with the firefighters is about $250,000, without factoring in the legal costs and interest owed the employees.

But city accountants have a lot of these calculations on their desks because they also need to retroactively pay all the other city employees who were without a contract for 18 months.

“Two-hundred-seventy-five individual recalculations have to be done,” said Schewfelt.

The settlement logjam was caused by city misconceptions about pay equity.

Whitehorse officials refused to negotiate wages until all jobs were evaluated through a pay-equity system, said West.

They said it had to be that way.

“We said that that’s not true and they argued, ‘Well, the Yukon is unique and we can’t do it,’” he said.

The air wasn’t cleared until a Yukon Human Rights Commission decision, delivered on Christmas Eve, said the city can have unequal pay for wages in the same job ranking.

Firefighters were among the lowest paid in the country under the city’s pay-equity system, receiving a wage lower than Whitehorse trash collectors.

The arbitration reward corrected that to a certain degree, said West, but there is still some work to be done.

If you’ve noticed, the arbitration reward was only until 2009.

They are already a year behind in a new contract.

And there are still a lot of things that need changes, said West.

More than anything, the goal is simply to bring the firefighters’ collective agreement up to date. Whitehorse’s agreement hasn’t been updated in decades and it is one of the only in Canada that still doesn’t include a pension plan, he said.

The groups have agreed to meet on February 28 and March 1 to try and find a new contract, said Schewfelt.

“But whatever is owed, will be paid,” he said.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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