Firefighters Won a Sick Pay Ruling. Vancouver Is Fighting It.

The City of Vancouver is fighting an arbitrator’s decision requiring it to pay for the first four days of sick leave for fire service employees.

The city has gone to the B.C. Court of Appeal in a bid to overturn a January decision that found it broke provincial law when it refused to give four initial sick days to some of its firefighters last year.

The ruling could cost the city more than $800,000 in back pay and set a precedent for eight other Lower Mainland municipalities with similar contracts with firefighters.

The city’s collective agreement with Vancouver Fire Fighters’ Union Local 18 calls for the union to cover the first four days of an employee’s sick leave each year. That money comes from a fund of contributions from union members.

The city pays for sick leave beyond four days.

But in 2021, the B.C. government passed Bill 13, which guaranteed five days of paid sick leave to any employee who had worked at least 90 days on the job.

At the time, the City of Vancouver granted that paid time off to firefighters who had less than six months of service and weren’t eligible for support from the union’s fund. It argued other fire service employees did not qualify because the law did not cover workplaces where “the existing provisions meet or exceed the requirements” of the law.

But in March 2022, the provincial government passed Bill 19, which said employees were entitled to the five days of paid sick leave even if a collective agreement contains provisions that could meet the requirements.

That led to the union grievance arguing the City of Vancouver had been breaking the law.

An arbitration hearing at the Labour Relations Board in January determined the law applied to firefighters and ordered the city to compensate workers who took sick leave any time after April 2022, plus interest.

The city is asking the B.C. Court of Appeal to set aside the arbitrator’s decision and dismiss the grievance, or refer the matter back to the arbitrator. The city also seeks costs.

In a court hearing this month, the city argued the legislation was intended to give sick time to British Columbians who did not have access to paid sick leave or whose existing coverage was less than five days a year.

They argued this does not apply to firefighters, since they already receive paid time off by way of their pooled fund, which is part of a collective agreement negotiated by them and the employer.

Firefighters have argued the Court of Appeal is the wrong venue to resolve the dispute. Robert Weeks, president of Vancouver Fire Fighters’ Union Local 18, said they prefer to settle the matter at the BC Labour Relations Board.

City spokeswoman Angela Mackenzie declined to comment for this story.

Weeks said he was disappointed the city had appealed the decision. “I think it’s unfortunate. I’m not surprised,” he said.

He said it is an unusual model for firefighters, who work 24-hour shifts and are at high risk for illness and injury.

He said the “odd arrangement” dates back to the 1970s and is found only among the municipal fire services in the Lower Mainland. He said firefighters currently contribute between one and two per cent of their salaries to that fund.

The union’s evidence in the arbitration said “10 other Fire Departments have the same or similar schemes where the first few days of sick leave are unpaid but covered by funds pooled by employees.”

“Eight of those areas have filed grievances that are being held in abeyance. The Union notes that the City of Burnaby has implemented the legislative changes and started to pay sick leave under the Act prior to requiring employees to access unpaid leave.”

The municipalities with similar grievances pending waiting for the ruling include Delta, Surrey, West Vancouver and Port Coquitlam.

Weeks said that after those first five days, the union would still be responsible for paying for the next four shifts out of its existing fund. “We’re still on the hook for sick time,” he said. “We’re just not on the hook for the first five calendar days in a year.”

“The vast majority of firefighters in this country aren’t paying for their own sick time. But we are.”

Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee