Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties warn of labour law fall­out

Pro­vi­sions would drive up costs of vol­un­teer fire de­part­ments

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - FRONT PAGE - LOUIS PIN

Ru­ral mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are warn­ing of dou­ble-digit tax hikes if pro­posed changes to provin­cial labour laws are passed.

Though most of the fo­cus on the Fair Work­places, Bet­ter Jobs Act has been on in­creas­ing the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour by 2019, com­mu­ni­ties such as Strathroy-Caradoc and Lu­can are rais­ing the alarm about changes that would cause fire­fight­ing bud­gets to soar.

“This could re­sult in the largest prop­erty tax in­crease that we’ve seen in many, many years,” said Lambton-Kent-Middlesex Progressive Con­ser­va­tive MPP Monte McNaughton.

He’s writ­ten to Pre­mier Kathleen Wynne to out­line the ef­fect the leg­is­la­tion sched­uled to come into ef­fect Jan. 1, 2018, will have on Strathroy-Caradoc, Lu­can and other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the London re­gion.

Of­fi­cials in Strathroy-Caradoc es­ti­mate the pro­posed changes would in­crease the an­nual cost of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s vol­un­teer fire depart­ment to $3.3 mil­lion from roughly $608,000.

Prop­erty taxes would have to be hiked 18.4 per cent to cover the added cost, politi­cians were told ear­lier this month.

Lu­can-Bid­dulph said it could be forced to scrap its vol­un­teer fire depart­ment if the bill passes.

As it stands now, the leg­is­la­tion would force mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to pay vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers the same as pro­fes­sional full-time fire­fight­ers.

The way vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers are paid would also change. In­stead of be­ing com­pen­sated when they re­spond to a call and for time spent on the call, fire­fight­ers would be paid for be­ing on call — an ap­proach that doesn’t make sense to Ox­ford Progressive Con­ser­va­tive MPP Ernie Harde­man, a long­time vol­un­teer fire­fighter.

“Some­body be­ing asked to stay at home wait­ing for a call should in fact be com­pen­sated in some way,” he said. “But how would you do that with vol­un­teers when they’re on call all the time?

“It does doesn’t make any sense.”

A vol­un­teer fire­fighter in Strathroy-Caradoc said fire­fight­ers didn’t ask for the costly changes.

“We . . . are not the ones that have ever raised this as an is­sue,” Matthew Stephen­son said. “We don’t do this for the money.”

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of On­tario (AMO) is re­quest­ing a special ex­emp­tion for vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers un­der the Em­ploy­ment Stan­dards Act.

In an in­ter­view Tues­day with Post­media News, Min­is­ter of Labour Kevin Flynn said the on-call and fair wage as­pects of the bill are not tar­geted at mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and the gov­ern­ment will amend the bill that will be tabled Thurs­day at com­mit­tee.

“We’re go­ing to be is­su­ing an ex­emp­tion that is very very spe­cific about that . . . and will ex­empt emer­gency and es­sen­tial ser­vices.”

The ex­emp­tion also will ad­dress fears by some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that they will have to pay ex­tra to po­lice chiefs and other high-earn­ing emer­gency per­son­nel be­cause they’re considered on call.

“You’re talk­ing about peo­ple who are al­ready on the Sun­shine List, al­ready in man­age­ment po­si­tions,” said Brian Lam­bie, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of On­tario. “(They are) al­ready get­ting paid to be in sit­u­a­tions where you have to re­spond like that,”

Flynn said changes will ad­dress the con­cern.

“It was never the in­tent of the gov­ern­ment to in­clude emer­gency and es­sen­tial ser­vices per­son­nel in the bill,” Flynn said. “When you ap­ply (to those jobs) you know that you’re pro­vid­ing an es­sen­tial ser­vice, you know that you’ll be on call . . . that’s in­cluded in the pack­age.”

How would vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers be af­fected?

• there are 178 vol­un­teer fire­fighter de­part­ments in On­tario, mostly ru­ral

• most vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers are paid a small stipend that dif­fers by mu­nic­i­pal­ity. In StrathroyCaradoc, for in­stance, fire­fight­ers re­ceive two points for re­spond­ing to a call and one point for each half hour worked. Each point pays out $14.42

• if the labour bill passes, each of Strathroy-Caradoc’s 78 vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers would re­ceive a min­i­mum of eight points per day, ev­ery day of the year, cost­ing the mu­nic­i­pal­ity more than $3.2 mil­lion per year — up from $608,000 pre­vi­ously

• mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with a mix­ture of full-time and part-time fire­fighter staff would re­quire their vol­un­teers be paid the same rate as reg­u­lar staff

LOUIS PIN // TIMES-JOUR­NAL

Brian Ge­orge, fire chief in Strathroy-Caradoc, stands inside a ru­ral fire sta­tion. Im­pend­ing leg­is­la­ture in On­tario would see the costs of vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers soar in the new year un­less an am­mend­ment is made.

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