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Deal in place four years later

Arbitration settles contract between city and firefighters

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

It took almost four years, but the City of Oshawa and the Oshawa Professional Firefighters Association have come to an agreement on a new contract.

The collective agreement was settled through an arbitration hearing in June, but discussions have been ongoing since the firefighters contract expired in December 2011.

A large point of contention between the two parties was the shift to firefighters working a 24-hour shift.

“That’s probably the biggest, most contentious issue in the province in many years,” says Steve Meringer, the city’s fire chief.

Those against the shift argue that firefighters aren’t working enough hours, when in reality it evens out to 42 hours a week, and state the long shift could impact the way firefighters are able to carry out their duties.

Both sides eventually settled on a four-year trial period that will see Oshawa’s 161 firefighters in the suppression division start a 24-hour shift in January 2016.

For Firefighters Association president Steve Barkwell, the trial period is a great opportunity to see if this shift is a good fit for Oshawa.

“We can see what the challenges are,” he said. “Both sides have the opportunity to stop the trial,” he adds, in case the shift proves to be not working.

However, Oshawa has the advantage to learn from other municipalities, such as Ajax, which has already instituted the 24-shift.

As well, Oshawa firefighters have been working a 24-hour Sunday shift since the 1950s.

“If they’re happy working these shifts and we’re covering all our bases and we’re as effective, or more effective, from an efficiency and as well as a cost factor, then all of those are good,” Meringer says.

With that issue settled, the two sides could have reached an agreement a few months earlier, however, the money factor was still a stopping point, according to the arbitration award.

“At the end of the day, we agreed on every issue except for one,” Barkwell says.

And that issue was wages.

In the end, the award followed a similar formula that is in place across the province, which sees firefighters wages put in line with those of the local police force, in this case, the Durham Regional Police Service.

Barkwell says the final award was a fair deal for both sides.

For Meringer, the final decision wasn’t exactly what the city was hoping for.

“From a corporate perspective, we’re not happy with the arbitrator awarding the money the way he did,” he says. “In fairness to our working groups in Oshawa and many work places, they are a lot less than what the arbitrator is awarding.

“We’re very proud and very happy with the work our fire services do, and we’re happy that (with) the money they make. But at the same time, the raises continue to be two-and-a-half to three per cent, and is a big hit on our taxpayers.”

The agreement was instated retroactively from January 2012 until December of this year and sees salaries raise from $84,131 in 2012 to $90,057 in 2014.

According to the arbitration award, any increases to DRPS pay in 2015 will be adjusted accordingly for the firefighter and retroactive pay is to be provided “as soon as reasonably possible” and no later than 60 days after the arbitrator released his decision on July 14.