Prison guards in Ontario were paid a 4 per cent bonus over two years just for coming to work, according to details of a labour agreement that may become the latest public-sector wage settlement to embarrass the McGuinty government.
The extra pay came on top of wage increases for the province's nearly 6,000 corrections officers, and was aimed at reducing their absenteeism rates. The deal was signed in June, 2009, but only came to light this month during a hearing before the Ontario Labour Relations Board followed by The Globe and Mail.
The bonus pay is the latest example of wage agreements negotiated directly by senior bureaucrats that have turned out to be more generous than previously believed. They reveal that the government has ignored its own restraint measure, consisting of a voluntary two-year wage freeze for public-sector workers who bargain collectively.
The agreement with prison guards, probation officers, youth workers and other corrections staff was struck during a particularly challenging period. The negotiations started in 2008, just as the global economic recession began to push the province deep into deficit. At the same time, the government was under pressure to make a problem go away after Ontario's Auditor-General criticized corrections officers' high absenteeism in his 2008 annual report, questioning whether they were "gaming the system."
A senior government official defended the bonus for corrections officers, saying it reduced their sick time to an average of 26.5 days in 2009 and 20.6 days in 2010. This is a dramatic improvement from 2007, when Auditor-General Jim McCarter said officers booked off an average of 32.5 days.
Labour leaders accuse the government of papering over the problem by throwing money at it. Don Ford, a spokesman for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents corrections workers, said the bonuses cause people to go to work when they should be at home sick.
"We certainly didn't like this position," Mr. Ford said. "You provide a monetary incentive to override people's logic."
As part of a four-year agreement with OPSEU, corrections workers receive wage increases totalling 7.75 per cent. But a review of the agreement itself reveals that the wage award does not tell the whole story.
In the first two years alone, "absenteeism target incentives" plus across-the-board salary adjustments of 2 per cent inflated the overall increase to 9.75 per cent from 3.75 for the majority of corrections workers. A smaller number received increases of 8.75 per cent, including a 1-per-cent salary adjustment aimed at aligning their pay with corrections workers in other provinces.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan was on the defensive last week over the government's voluntary wage freeze, which opposition members said was doomed to fail.
"We chose to negotiate with unions, and we have had some success," Mr. Duncan said in Question Period. "We have had setbacks. But we are bringing down the average rate of settlement."
During bargaining with the corrections officers, the government initially proposed punitive measures to address absenteeism. The government wanted to restrict sick time to five days a year and impose a monetary penalty for workers who exceeded that target. But workers threatened to walk off the job, voting 89 per cent in favour of strike action.
"Our members said that under no circumstances were they going to accept anything that punished people for taking sick time," Mr. Ford said.
Labour leaders wanted the government to address underlying working conditions in the province's 31 prisons that they say are at the root of the problem. The job is particularly stressful and sometimes dangerous for those officers who work in old, poorly ventilated prisons, where they can be exposed to disease by spending their shift in close proximity to inmates.
"We deal with multiple assaults on ourselves, we see all kinds of blood and guts and all that," said Monte Vieselmeyer, president of OPSEU Local 517, which represents corrections officers at Toronto West Detention Centre.
Burnout is common, Mr. Vieselmeyer said, because officers work a lot of overtime to cover their colleagues' absences.
"To get a vacation day, if you didn't put it in 30 days in advance, they almost forced you to call in sick to get a day off, so it became a vicious cycle," he said.
But the government minister who oversees corrections workers said the absenteeism incentives have led to cost savings for the province. The workers received incentives totalling $5.4-million in 2009 and 2010, said Jim Bradley, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. But the province netted savings of $26-million during that same period because of lower overtime costs.
"The results have been somewhat remarkable," Mr. Bradley said. "It's been a win."
Editor's Note: In the original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version, the following words attributed to Monte Vieselmeyer, the president of OPSEU Local 517, should have been presented as a paraphrase, but incorrectly appeared as a quote: "So, in effect, they're working [and getting paid for]lots of overtime, then taking 'sick' days to recuperate." This online version has been corrected.
'Secret' deal, specialty pay belies McGuinty government's call for voluntary wage freeze
In March, 2010, the Ontario government called for a two-year, voluntary wage freeze for public-sector workers who bargain collectively. But contracts negotiated directly with government before and after its plea for restraint contain extra wage hikes that call that commitment to controlling public salaries into question.
The 'secret' deal
In December, 2008, the province and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union agreed to a new contract with salary increases of 1.75 per cent the first year, and 2 per cent in each of the next three years. The deal also gave its 38,000 members an extra 1 per cent salary boost in 2012. But the government, mindful that the deal with the province's largest public-sector union sets a benchmark for other negotiations, promised that extra pay in confidential letters, not in the collective agreement itself, as first revealed by The Globe and Mail. The "secret" deal became public through a recent Ontario Labour Relations Board hearing, where another union accused the government of bad-faith bargaining.
In June, 2009, a separate unit of OPSEU representing corrections workers negotiated a four-year deal with salary increases of 1.75 per cent the first year, and 2 per cent in each of the next three years. But to try and drive down the volume of sick days the officers were taking, the government agreed to pay bonuses of anywhere from 2 per cent to 5 per cent per year if average absentee rates declined. Available bonus pay declines each year, the targets for earning it get more stringent, and if the officers fail to meet all targets, they would lose out on overtime pay. So far, employees have received bonuses of 2 per cent in each of 2009 and 2010 for taking fewer days off.
Frozen, but catching up
A new, three-year Ontario Provincial Police contract inked in mid-2010 appears to honour the government's voluntary two-year wage freeze. The OPP receive a wage increase of 5.075 per cent in the first year and zero in each of the following two years. However, it came to light last week that OPP officers who work in highly technical or dangerous jobs do in fact receive 2 per cent raises in 2012 and 2013. The "specialty pay," affecting 15 per cent of the police force, is spelled out in a previously undisclosed appendix to the contract. The Globe obtained a copy from the government last week.
The goodies do not end there. As previously reported by The Globe, the OPP contract contains a provision guaranteeing it will be the highest-paid force again as of September, 2014. As a result, a new Toronto police contract puts the OPP in line for a nearly 9-per-cent salary bump that year.
Police work is "highly dangerous," making it different from other public-service jobs, said Jim Christie, president of the Ontario Provincial Police Association. "There's a price tag for a safe Ontario."
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