Firefighter deal reflects on-par pay: arbitrator

Duane Hicks

While the Town of Fort Frances is claiming a new collective agreement with the Fort Frances Professional Fire Fighters Association will cost them dearly, the deal is on par with other fire departments in Northern Ontario.
The arbitrated award includes a 16 percent wage increase over a four-year period, with a three percent hike in 2009, four percent in 2010, four percent in 2011, and five percent in 2012.
It also includes recognition pay, which is a bonus system based on a percentage of firefighters’ wages.
Effective Jan. 1, 2011, firefighters with eight years of service will get recognition pay equal to two percent of their wages; with 17 years, four percent; and with 23 years, six percent.
The effective Jan. 1, 2012, the eight-year bonus will increase to three percent, the 17-year bonus will go up to six percent, and the 23-year bonus will jump to nine percent.
The deal also includes a full benefit plan for retirees until the age of 65.
The arbitration hearing regarding this matter was held Dec. 10 in Thunder Bay, with the award being handed down Feb. 4.
The firefighters’ previous collective agreement expired Dec. 31, 2008, followed by a series of negotiations with the town.
But for the first time since 1950, after voluntarily agreeing to 16-consecutive renewals over the years, the FFPFA and the Town were unable to reach a voluntary agreement—hence the need for arbitration.
In a press release issued yesterday, the FFPFA called the deal fair and final.
“With respect to the arbitration handed down between the Town of Fort Frances and the Professional Fire Fighters Association, we see this award as a direct reflection of the industry norm and how other fire departments of similar size, serving comparable communities, are compensated,” it read.
“Members of the fire department have been without a contract since Jan. 1, 2009 and unfortunately the arbitration process was required to establish a new collective agreement,” it noted.
“In this case, both parties were in agreement of the chosen arbitrator with the realization that his ruling would be final.”
Kevin M. Burkett, chair of the Board of Arbitration, wrote in his Feb. 4 decision that compensation for professional firefighters in Ontario is determined by reference to relevant police and firefighter compensation levels.
In this case, particular attention was paid to the compensation of firefighters in other Northern Ontario fire services of comparable size (i.e., Kirkland Lake, Elliot Lake, Kapuskasing, West Nipissing, and Kenora).
“Against this reference point, the Fort Frances firefighters are underpaid,” argued Burkett.
“Kirkland Lake firefighters, who are presently being caught up through a series of back-end loaded, split-year arbitrated salary increases, and Fort Frances are the two lowest-paid,” he said.
The next lower paid are the Kapuskasing firefighters who, in 2008, were paid a first-class firefighter salary of $65,023 compared to the $63,865 paid to a Fort Frances first-class firefighter.
However, the Kapuskasing firefighter salaries are determined through 2011 for an end first-class firefighter salary of $72,432, Burkett added.
He also noted “recognition pay has become a standard provision of firefighter collective agreements in this jurisdiction.”
In similarly-sized Northern Ontario fire services, Elliot Lake was awarded three percent after eight years of service, six percent after 17 years, and nine percent after 23 years effective Jan. 2, 2010; Kirkland Lake has been awarded two percent, four percent, and six percent, respectively, effective Jan. 1, 2010 and three percent, six percent, and nine percent effective Jan, 1, 2011; and Kapuskasing negotiated two percent, four percent, and six percent, respectively, effective Jan. 1, 2011.
Neither Kenora nor West Nipissing has yet introduced recognition pay although their collective agreements came open Jan. 1.
As such, the arbitration board decided to award recognition pay commencing with the two percent, four percent, and six percent effective Jan. 1, 2011 and the three percent, six percent, and nine percent effective Jan. 1, 2012.
Burkett noted that “in circumstances where we are awarding both catch-up [albeit spread over four years and back-end loaded] and recognition pay, we ought to be cautious with respect to the remainder of the award and, in particular, in the area of benefits.”
“In this regard, we have decided to award a retiree benefit provision to age 65 along the lines of that provided to the Elliot Lake, Kapuskasing, and Kenora firefighters. . . .
“In light of all of the foregoing, we are not awarding other benefit improvements, except for the agreed upon addition of Family Day as a paid holiday, nor are we awarding any other changes to the collective agreement,” Burkett concluded.