Bill 148 exempts on-call provisions for volunteer firefighters

Woolwich and Wellesley townships would have faced huge financial burden without exemption

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Next month’s increase in the minimum wage will put a strain on municipal budgets, but rural communities such as Wellesley and Woolwich have dodged a bullet with planned exemptions for volunteer firefighters.

Original drafts of Bill 148, the so-called Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, demanded payments for on-call workers, a move that could have proved crippling in the case of municipalities employing volunteer firefighters. Heeding complaints, the province exempted such positions.

Responding to action by the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO), an advocacy group representing most of the province’s municipalities, the Liberal government made concessions just last month that help avert a large financial hit.

In less than two weeks, the minimum wage rises to $14 an hour from the current $11.60, but of particular concern, however, were sections in the proposed legislature for part-time and on-call employees. The sections mandated equal wages for part-time employees with their full-time counterparts as well as a minimum three hours worth of pay to employees who are on-call but not actively at work.

AMO claimed that while well-intentioned, the changes came with consequences that could drive up the cost of volunteer firefighters and other on-call emergency workers for small municipalities that don’t require full-time employees.

In a report to lawmakers, the AMO pointed out that volunteer firefighters had a very different role, and very different reason for taking on the job, than their full-time counterparts.

“The volunteer firefighter is primarily motivated to be part of a voluntary fire service as their civic duty to the community that they and their families live in, not for monetary compensation.”

In their letter, provincial ministers Bill Mauro and Kevin Flynn agreed, and offered to add exemptions for municipalities for these certain cases.

The townships of Woolwich and Wellesley both approved of the announcement.

“From my perspective, we welcome the proposed revisions,” said Wellesley treasurer Theresa Bisch, in an emailed statement to The Observer.

“The proposals that have been brought forward would exempt an employer from providing on-call pay to an employee who was on call, and not required to work, if the reason for the on-call shift was to ensure the continued delivery of essential public services, such as fire, utility and snow removal services.”

Richard Petherick, Woolwich’s director of finance, concurred.

“It would be a huge financial burden if we ended up having to pay our volunteer firefighters three hours for just being on call, and have to do that 365 days a year. And plus, to have the same wage parity as the cities, that would be a very huge burden upon the township. A financial burden,” he said, adding that while he had not calculated the actual cost, it would likely be very significant.

Currently, volunteer firefighters in Woolwich are paid a pro forma standby rate of just $250 a year; the main expense to the township is the hourly rate of $24, which is only paid when firefighters respond to an emergency call.

While the proposed exemptions are welcome by the townships, the higher minimum wage presents another real, if more manageable challenge to future budgets.

Under the act, the minimum wage would be raised in stages. First, to $14 an hour from $11.60 as of January 1, then to $15 starting on Jan. 1, 2019.

The legislation also calls for similar increases in student wages, and mandates additional rules around emergency leave pay and other potential expenses for employers.

Both Woolwich and Wellesley staff anticipate that increase would have the biggest impact on staff in the recreation  department, where students and part-timers are more prevalent. Most full-time staff members are paid at a much higher rate already.

In Woolwich, the extra costs for 2018 have been estimate at $110,000 to $140,000, with an additional $15,000 when the new rate kicks in the following year.

The total amount budgeted for salaries and wages to Woolwich recreation staff in 2017 was $1.7 million, meaning costs would increase by 6.5 to 8 per cent

A similar estimate provided to Wellesley council by staff estimated an increase of at least $12,000 in salaries for the recreation department, though the report noted it was only a partial estimate.