Comment: May 2015
By Laura King
In journalism, when a person or group torques a message to suit a particular agenda, we call it spin.
Firefighter associations are spin doctors (that’s an outdated term, but also a compliment!); they’re very good at massaging messages to get what they want. Municipalities and their fire chiefs are not.
Take post-retirement benefits for firefighters – a hot-button issue that is “on everyone’s table,” according to the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (see story on page 28).
Most career firefighters belong to provincial retirement systems, under which health benefits end at age 65.
But with the International Association of Fire Fighters (rightly) pushing a health and safety agenda, and politicians (rightly) demanding accountability for every penny a fire department spends, the argument for post-retirement benefits are strong; it’s tough to dismiss pleas for coverage for cancer drugs or counselling for PTSD. Or is it?
Scroll to the comments section below any online news story about firefighter salaries and the vitriol about entitlement and layabouts who get to sleep on the job will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Here’s why: according to a 2011 study by the Life Insurance and Market Research Association, almost 80 per cent of Canadian employers do not offer post-retirement benefits to non-union workers – the stylist who cuts your hair and the mechanic who fixes your car – average Canadians.
In most provinces, people 65 and older have some type of seniors’ benefits, but there are caps and, often, an annual payment.
Associations say fires are different now – they’re hotter and more toxic – which means greater risk. The flip side? Those hotter, faster-burning, more toxic fires are fought defensively. PPE is better. Fire science is evolving so firefighters are better educated about how to protect themselves. And with hotter, faster-burning fires, there’s little or no opportunity for rescue, which reduces risk.
Taxpayers want bicycle paths and paved streets. They don’t want to pay for a service they don’t use (until they need it).
In Ontario, where many municipalities claim to lack the ability to pay the salaries and benefits being requested yet dole out handsome sums for police protection and other services, consultants are recommending that career departments turn composite to save taxpayer dollars.
So far in Ontario arbitrators have rejected post-65 spending accounts five times based on municipalities’ arguments that the benefits cost too much – so clearly some corporations are presenting solid ability-to-pay cases.
Three other municipalities have freely negotiated the perk, agreeing with associations that firefighters need a financial safety net in retirement – a move lawyers say will set a trend that arbitrators will be pressed to follow.
Which is exactly what the associations are counting on.