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Road work.Ted S. Warren

The City of Hamilton fired 29 public-works employees Monday for time theft, breach of trust and neglect of duties.

The employees, frontline road-maintenance workers whose main duties involve filling potholes, used company time and vehicles to "go to shopping malls, go to coffee shops, go have a snooze in the park," according to Councillor Lloyd Ferguson, chair of the public-works committee.

The mass dismissal – which hit about one-third of asphalt-repair staff – traces back to October, when managers noticed some of the data collected by the GPS devices installed on road-repair trucks was suspicious. It suggested employees were going to places other than the assigned ones where repairs were needed. Managers confronted some staff about this and, based on what they gleaned in those interviews, hired a private investigation firm to tail some of the crews.

"It was that surveillance that really told the story in terms of what they weren't doing," said city manager Chris Murray. "In some cases there was very little work taking place, at the end of the day."

On one work day, the private investigators found one crew only worked for 30 minutes, Mr. Ferguson said.

In total, the city disciplined 31 employees – they fired 29 and suspended two without pay for 30 days. Mr. Murray said the average annual salary of the employees is about $50,000. He said the group that was fired "wasn't highly populated with new employees."

The workers are members of CUPE Local 5167, which represents Hamilton's inside and outside workers.

"As a union, we do not condone wrongdoings of any kind and we have a duty as a union, under the labour-relations act, to represent our members in work-related matters in all circumstances," said union president Derron Vernon in a statement.

The investigation isn't over yet; now the city's public-works managers and internal auditing staff are interviewing supervisors and doing a full forensic of work records to understand how this alleged deception took place. Supervisors could face discipline, too.

"The supervisors should know what they assign in the morning and what's done at the end of the day. They should be going around to these job sites and checking on their crews," Mr. Ferguson said.

But that still leaves the question of what happened to the asphalt the crews were to use to repair roads. "If they took 10 tons of asphalt in the morning and brought back nine and a half at the end of the day, it would draw attention to them," Mr. Ferguson said. "So that's one of the other things we're investigating is the dumping of asphalt."

The city has informed police about the matter but an investigation hasn't started yet, Mr. Ferguson said. The allegations involving missing asphalt have not been proven in court.

The city spent $18,000 for the private investigators and about $57,000 to cover unpaid leave for 31 employees during the nine days between the confrontation with employees and their eventual dismissal or suspension.

Mr. Murray said he did not have a firm number to represent the cost to the city of the lost productivity.

"To me, it's not the hours of productivity that they are paid for and never did the work, but also: What does this do to the infrastructure itself that doesn't get fixed?" he said.

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