Firefighters fired up over wage negotiations

In Whitehorse, a firefighter who saves you from a burning building is paid less than the garbage truck driver who hauls your trash. Firefighters inhale carcinogenic fumes, scale fiery buildings and carry loads far more than their body weight.

In Whitehorse, a firefighter who saves you from a burning building is paid less than the garbage truck driver who hauls your trash.

Firefighters inhale carcinogenic fumes, scale fiery buildings and carry loads far more than their body weight.

Garbage collectors have hydraulic lifts to pick up trash.

And yet their work is classed higher than firefighters in the city’s pay equity program.

“I was told truck drivers are harder to find and that’s why they’re getting paid more,” said Larry McKay, who retired from the Whitehorse fire department after 25 years of service.

The pay difference incenses firefighters, who have been without a contract for almost four years.

Firefighters do dangerous work but they don’t get the respect they should from the city, said McKay.

Whitehorse firefighters make 10 per cent less than firefighters in similar-sized cities like Dawson Creek, Fort St. John and Grande Prairie. For fire officers, the pay differential is even higher – 30 per cent.

The Whitehorse fire department has some of the lowest-paid staff in the country, said Lorne West, the International Association of Firefighters’ Western Canada representative.

Firefighters can’t strike because the work they do is considered an essential service.

Their only recourse is arbitration.

In April, after three years of contract negotiation, the firefighters were awarded an average retroactive pay raise of 3.6 per cent between 2007 and 2009.

It was higher than what the city had recommended, but it was still far lower than the seven per cent increase they requested to bring them in line with other municipalities.

Not happy with the decision, the city hauled the union to court to challenge the arbitrator’s decision.

The city would have to increase wages for all of its employees if it increased firefighters’ wages, said city manager Dennis Shewfelt in a previous interview with the News.

If it didn’t, the city would be in contravention of the Yukon Human Rights Act and the city’s policy of equal pay for equal work, which it introduced back in 1988, he said.

The Whitehorse pay equity plan ranks all of the city’s 275 jobs based on skill level, effort, education, responsibility and working conditions.

The city won’t release the specific ranking of its employees’ positions.

Those are confidential.

So too is the amount of money the city has already spent on the case.

“I can’t speak to that number on the grounds that it may prejudice the ongoing (court case),” said administrative services director Robert Fendrick.

But Whitehorse citizens should know that number, said West, explaining that the city has hired three lawyers for the case and paid an independent contractor $165,000 back in 2008 to research pay-equity plans.

“By the time the city finishes this, they’ll have spent far more money than it would cost them to implement the arbitration award.”

It’s a hard fact for the firefighters to swallow.

While firefighters were without a contract last August, city councillors were giving themselves a raise. They voted to give themselves a 2.1 per cent increase every year over the next three years.

Morale at the city’s two fire departments is at an all-time low,

said a current firefighter who didn’t want his name used for fear of losing his job.

“What the city is doing to us is underhanded and disrespectful,” he said.

The firefighter was looking forward to having the issue resolved this year.

A court date was set for September to review the arbitration case. It’s now been pushed back to late March.

“There’s been delay after delay after delay,” said the firefighter.

“For much of this we’ve taken the high road.

“Now, we’re pissed.”

It doesn’t help that this is the third time the city has entered into arbitration with the firefighter’s union since it implemented the pay equity program.

A number like that is “unheard of” for a city the size of Whitehorse, said West.

He’s convinced the city is wasting its time and money fighting a battle that it will eventually lose.

“The employer is essentially saying they refuse to bargain a wage increase with a union and that’s contrary to the charter rights (of Canada),” said West.

Legal examples from across the country prop up the firefighters’ case, he added.

In the meantime, Whitehorse firefighters just have to wait.

When this case wraps up, the firefighters have to start negotiating their next contract.

“It’s not a good workplace to be in these days,” said the firefighter who preferred to stay anonymous.

Firefighters used to volunteer extra hours at the fire department and hang out there after their shift, he said.

“Now, it’s a ghost town.”

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com

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