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Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers have been in negotiations since December for its 50,000 delivery and plant employees.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A disparity in the wages of two groups of workers at Canada Post is a pressing issue in negotiations between the Crown corporation and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. If an agreement can't be struck by July 2, the issue could be one factor behind a possible strike or lockout.

A seasoned letter carrier delivering in urban areas earns $25.95 after a culmination of seven years, according to the 2012 collective agreement. A separate agreement from the same year shows that Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers (RSMC) earn an average of $19.44, the most they can make after five years of service.

The majority of those workers are women (about 70 per cent), says Mike Palecek, the union's national president.

"There's a major issue of pay equity here that we need addressed and that's that rural and suburban mail carriers that are predominately women make 28 per cent less than their male dominated counterparts in the urban bargaining unit," he says. "They [Canada Post] refuse to give RSMCs an hourly wage. They want them to work piecework [non-pensionable work completed outside scheduled hours], they don't get paid overtime, they don't get nearly the same benefits as the urban members. That needs to change."

There are about 50,000 Canada Post workers across the country. Of that number roughly 8,450 are RSMCs. Half work in rural settings, while the others are in suburban areas, according to CUPW. RSMCs work about six to 6 1/2 hours every day, compared to the structured, full-time hours their associates are entitled to. They rely on piecework to bump up their hours – this is predicated on a per-task basis.

Shelley Sillers, Ontario education and organization officer for CUPW, was an RSMC until last May.

While there have been many improvements since the RSMCs joined the union in 2003, like slight increases in pay and maternity leave, there are still many problems, she says.

"An RSMC doesn't qualify for post-retirement health benefits, or an extended long-term disability plan," she says. "When you look at the medical benefits, RSMCs receive 50 per cent of paramedical services urban members get."

Recent offers made by Canada Post dated June 26, include doubling the coverage of all paramedical services, making changes in driving time payments and giving 30 cents for every parcel delivered by an RSMC above 135 on a weekly basis (piecework) with an opportunity for annual increases. The defined benefit pension plan for existing members won't be touched, according to offers posted on Canada Post's website. New hires will be on a defined contribution pension plan.

CUPW is not satisfied. A full-time wage rate is not outlined, nor is compensation for overtime RSMCs. One of the reasons the union wants an hourly rate is because it will ensure a wholesome pension for them.

"There's not a good rationale why the RSMC worker should be earning substantially less," says Ms. Sillers.

Two separate collective agreements divide urban letter carriers from RSMC workers. The union wants one to unite both groups. The one for RSMCs is based on activity – how much work they complete over the course of a day.

"The rural and suburban carriers, theirs is a variable pay based on their route," says Jon Hamilton, spokesperson for Canada Post.

Workers in suburban areas sometimes rub shoulders with urban letter carriers working on the same block. These RSMCs have the potential to make as much as urban postal workers, if not more, says Mr. Hamilton, because their routes and piecework rates equal full-time work due to the high density of homes. Income for RSMCs has a lot to do with geography, in other words. "For some out in rural, it's more of a part-time job."

Geoff Bickerton, director of research at CUPW, says they are the only group of Canada Post workers who don't have an hourly rate or get paid overtime.

"[Urban letter carriers] have fixed hours, a pension based on those hours and is earning $25.95 and the person right beside them has no fixed hours, earning less than 20 bucks an hour and has a pension for about two-thirds of their hours," he says.