Are Cornwall firefighters ‘exhausted’? City, union at odds over workload

The board of arbitration reviews their documents Sept. 14, 2015 before the proceedings. From left, Corporation Nominee Michael Riddell, Chair William Kaplan and Association Nominee Steven Barrett. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

CORNWALL – Representatives from the firefighters’ union and the city appeared at odds over how busy firefighters are on the job.

With an undercurrent of the “quite controversial” Fire Master Plan, Cornwall Professional Firefighters Association consultant Bill Cole made his case before the three-person board of arbitration Monday morning.

Both sides met six times before the matter was sent to the special interest arbitration, the board heard during the hearing at the Best Western Parkway Inn.

The collective agreement, which expired in 2012, covers 59 members for the Cornwall Fire Department.

Cole said Cornwall is “very unique” because it deals with a higher volume of fire calls compared to the provincial average and its municipal counterparts. He referred to firefighters as “exhausted” on a number of occasions during his submission.

According to Ontario Fire Marshal stats, Cornwall has double the fires per 10,000 structures than Ontario and almost three times the number of structure fire losses per $100,000 of assessment compared to the province.

The consultant laid the blame on staffing problems on the city. “Chronic (under)staffing lays at the feet of city council who refuses to hire,” Cole said. He noted it wasn’t until the insistence of the fire chief that two vacant positions are in the process of being filled.

Among the Cornwall Professional Firefighters Association (CPFFA) demands are wage increases, a 24-hour shift schedule, a rollback on years of eligibility for vacation entitlement and a cash out of holidays in lieu.

The association is proposing wage increases of 8.6 per cent over three years (3.25, 2.78 and 2.57 per cent). Under the Cornwall PFFA proposal, a first-class firefighter making $84,517, would be making $91,992 by the end of this year (2015).

There’s also a proposal to adjust the rates of pay for the fire prevention officer, senior/chief fire prevention change, the chief mechanical officer and the chief training officer (which equates to an eight per cent wage increase for officers).

There is also asks for top-ups to pensions, paid leave for family members and paid maternity/paternity leave at 93 per cent.

Firefighters have been without a contract since the end of 2012. Once the board of arbitration settles this case, the contract will likely expire within a month (the end of 2015) and negotiations will start again.

The board of arbitration convenes in a meeting room at the Best Western Parkway Inn in Cornwall, Ont. Members of the City of Cornwall, left, and the Cornwall Professional Firefighters' Association, right, make their case to the three-person board on Sept. 14, 2015. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)
The board of arbitration convenes in a meeting room at the Best Western Parkway Inn in Cornwall, Ont. Members of the City of Cornwall, left, and the Cornwall Professional Firefighters’ Association, right, make their case to the three-person board on Sept. 14, 2015. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

City questions employee fatigue; wants mechanic position cut

City lawyer John Saunders balked at the union requests.

“If we were in a normal strike or lockout situation, they wouldn’t have brought that all to the table,” he said, before outlining the city’s three proposals.

Saunders cited a number of government statistics – such as taxes paid per household and the second-lowest household income in Ontario – arguing “the City of Cornwall’s ability to pay is severely limited.”

Saunders disputed the assertion from the firefighters’ association they are “exhausted,” saying “they are not overtaxed, that’s why they want to work 24 hours (shift).”

He referenced calls for service showing 1,194 calls last year or 3.25 calls per day over 24 hours, suggesting a bunch of those calls could be car crashes not requiring a high level of exertion.

The city wants to eliminate the fire mechanic position under the collective agreement and outsource the work – the single position that would have a salary of roughly $101,000 this year.

Saunders argued the position, which could be vacant anyway by the end of the year due to retirement, could be outsourced to a unionized worker for half the cost (~$51,000).

The city lawyer also pleaded with the board to settle the “tortured history” of vacation pay. The specific issue is the final year before retirement. “It is the most litigated…most screwed up scenario,” an exasperated Saunders said.

The city wants to final year pro-rated to the day a firefighter retires. Right now, firefighters get a full year’s vacation plus the pro-rated amount. The issue has been arbitrated five times with limited success each time at resolving the issue.

Decision not likely until December

Both sides will submit reply briefs to today’s arguments within the next three weeks.

The board of arbitration is not scheduled to review the issue until Nov. 20. That means a decision likely won’t come until sometime in December.

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