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Municipal pay increase entrenched in 'contract'

Mayor says public discussion of wages 'not respectful'

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While community members are criticizing the RMOW's four per cent staff wage increases this year, the municipality says that it does not have the wiggle room to back out of them.

"The employee handbook is not a contract but it is an agreement. What a lot of people don't realize is that every single employee that we hire on signs an employment agreement with the municipality, whether they are non-union or union," said Denise Wood, director of human resource for the RMOW

Non-union employees sign a legally binding agreement that states the employee and the employer are bound to the employee handbook, similar to a collective agreement reached with a union.

According to a copy acquired by Pique, "Changes may be made in the terms and conditions of employment contained in this Employee Handbook from time to time. Such changes will be made in consultation with employees as represented by the Staff Relations Committee."

It also states that it's the "intent" that the handbook "reflect parity with the six Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) municipalities (...)."

While it states the increases are not mandated, Woods said there would be repercussions from forgoing the 2011 wage increases.

"If we then said that we're not giving their increases, they would then have a variety of outlets by means of the law of what they could do toward the RMOW."

She said the municipality has labour lawyers who have advised them that they are legally bound, and if they tried to tear up the agreement they wouldn't have much of a case in court.

Wood said it is not a requirement that the non-union wage increases be passed by council, unlike the union wages, which need to be ratified by both employers and the union. As well, the current handbook did not need to be approved by council. An earlier council passed a resolution that allows revisions to the handbook without council approval.

Councillor Ralph Forsyth raised a motion in council to begin discussion on ways to renegotiate the handbook agreement with staff in order to eliminate the four per cent wage increases.

"It's difficult. I don't think people can appreciate how difficult it is to bring that up in front of people, in public," he said.

"To my mind, there are no sacred cows. I am willing to look at anything that saves taxpayer money," Forsyth said. "There is no conversation that we should not be having, but I am alone."

He said he was surprised by council's cool response to his motion.

"I thought we could have at least had the conversation."

Mayor Ken Melamed, who called Forsyth's motion "offside," said that council remains unwilling to entertain the notion of discussing the issue in a public forum, calling Forsyth's efforts "pandering and for show only."

"It's just not good form. It's not respectful. We are employers and good employers don't have public conversations about their staff remuneration levels."

Council has discussed the possibility of forgoing wage increases in closed-door meetings.

"The main issue is have we asked the questions - and we have ­- are our staff wages fair and commensurate with the work done, and how do they compare with our comparative set of communities?"

Melamed said they have tested the metrics. They've done the due diligence and RMOW staff are paid "around the median" for municipal employees around the province.

According to the RMOW's FAQ page, employees sign an employment agreement that states the municipality will follow the terms of employment included in the employment handbook, or collective agreement for unionized employees.

This year's four per cent increase, which applies to all municipal staff and managers, will cost about $800,000. In 2007 council agreed to the increases for four years, based on the CUPE contract negotiations. The salary increases will end in 2011, after a cumulative 17.5 per cent increase that applies to both managers and staff.

Any salary increase will need to be negotiated for the 2012 budget year, likely in step with the GVRD contract negotiations.

The process begins with union contract negotiations across Canada, which then filter down to union contract negotiations in the GVRD, which then influence union contracts in Whistler, which then influence wages and salaries in the employee handbook.

"None of this happens totally in isolation and the policy we have taken is to pay fairly, to maintain a healthy work place environment and to respect the agreements that we have with staff," Melamed said. "Having a motivated and highly productive staff depends on having this trust and respectful relationship."

Nancy Wilhelm Morden, a trial lawyer who served on council when the wage increases were written into the budget - which she voted against - said the increases are "completely out of step" with the current economic climate.

"Who's had 17.5 per cent salary increases in the last four fiscal periods? Nobody that I'm aware of, certainly not if you look around in the corridor, and you look at what municipal staff is paid in Squamish, what municipal staff is paid in Pemberton, what Whistler Blackcomb, the largest employer in Whistler, what their staff are being paid. Nobody's getting these kinds of increases," she said.

But Melamed said that the contracts were drawn up and agreed upon before the downturn hit in 2008.

"You can't have 20/20 hindsight," he said. "A contract is a contract and it's running its course."