Mississauga firefighters won’t ask for top-up pay during pandemic
When you call 911, you’re put through to a central operator. A calm voice on the other end of the phone gently coaxes out key details and transfers your call to who’s best equipped to help.
For those panicked and reporting an assault, or residents in tears after calling in a break-in, the Peel Regional Police are dispatched to respond. Those frightened by the smell of smoke or an activated carbon monoxide alarm, it’s put over to the fire service.
But, when you call in a medical emergency, it’s not as cut and dried. Those in need of urgent medical care, especially with heart issues or problems breathing, it could be the fire service or Peel Paramedics, or a combo of the two.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Peel firefighters might face a dual threat: a fire ravaging a house or building; or the invisible threat of COVID-19.
Responding to the latter means Mississauga firefighters have to don a range of protective equipment to enter properties, with fewer leaving their vehicle to minimize risk.
This danger faces many frontline emergency workers across the province.
At the end of April, Premier Doug Ford announced additional paychecks for workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. From April 24 until August 13 of this year, the province will be topping up wages for frontline workers by $4 per hour – even offering $250 per month for those working more than 1,000 hours.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are many new considerations for firefighters responding to calls.
The initial announcement included about 350,000 workers. The broad categories of those set to benefit were those working in hospitals, long-term care homes, social workers and corrections officials.
The announcement was widely praised, a move few would have predicted from a government that cancelled plans to raise the minimum wage after its majority win in 2018.
But the announcement had its critics, and those groups excluded began to politely knock on the door. They asked that the scheme be widened.
A few days later, Ford acquiesced. Paramedics were among those added, duly acknowledged for the danger their jobs put them in.
“As soon as the original plan was made public, my office was in touch with government officials lobbying hard for additions to the eligibility list and while today’s expansion is not everything we asked for, I applaud the government for listening and moving the yardsticks,” Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) President Warren Thomas said in a statement. “We will continue to work to ensure all employers remain focused on ensuring front-line workers’ jobs are protected and that they have the requisite safety equipment.”
Despite facing similar challenges to the paramedics in the city, Mississauga’s firefighters will not be asking for the extra wages.
“They originally rolled it out for some segments of the frontline workers. It was intended to be the frontline sectors that maybe aren’t super well represented or don't have the ability to have a good collective union,” Chris Varcoe, local fire union head, told The Pointer. “Some of the people we’re talking about are scrambling to make minimum wage.”
The firefighters’ understand they are fairly compensated for their dangerous work and others facing equally challenging tasks are not. This pay bump is an acknowledgment of difficult tasks frontline workers perform, and also designed to help those who may be struggling significantly during the pandemic as they work harder than ever.
“The work of firefighters is inherently dangerous and for that we are fairly compensated,” Varcoe said. “However, we recognize this benefit is intended to supplement those professions that do not have the benefit of receiving fair compensation.”
“The men and women of the Mississauga Fire Fighters Association are happy to assist on the front lines during this crisis and will continue to do so, regardless of the hazard and its severity, all the while taking every possible precaution to keep our members and the public we serve safe”.
This generosity of spirit has, according to Varcoe, garnered widespread praise, even from as far away as the U.S. One fire chief in Maryland picked up the phone to congratulate him and his members for their stance.
If people really want to show their appreciation, Mississauga firefighters are asking for donations to their benevolent fund. The charitable arm of the organization donated $100,000 to the Mississauga Food Bank, and plans to spend another $100,000 on local charities throughout the year.
As firefighters stepped away from government largesse, other organizations stepped forward. A change.org petition signed by almost 7,000 is asking for allied health workers to receive these provincial benefits. The workers include occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech assistants and pharmacists. The logic is that these health workers, like so many, are in direct contact with COVID-19 patients. With hospitals especially stretched right now, and many of these employees being asked to do taks that expose them to greater danger, they could be at even greater risk of exposure to the virus.
Early steps to reopening the province are underway, and the list of businesses allowed to operate in the province grew fractionally on Monday with municipal construction getting the greenlight. Garden centres and nurseries were also told they could begin operating with curbside pickup or delivery.
Opening more stores means more workers will suddenly find themselves on the frontlines. Grocery workers or LCBO employees have been working through the pandemic, putting themselves at risk. As more join this list, cries for further top-ups might grow louder.
With no better weapon to fight the novel coronavirus than masks and hand sanitizer, workers in all professions will likely feel a certain level of vulnerability. Will many feel this danger deserves extra compensation?
From those working in pizza outlets or coffee shops, and to transit operators ferrying people around cities, the threat of COVID-19 is indiscriminate. Health workers, coming in close contact with patients they know are COVID-19 positive, face the biggest threat of all. But fear grips anyone working on or near the frontlines.
Queen’s Park is carefully moving to reopen the province. But it remains a worry for all workers because there is no vaccine.
In the economic rubble caused by this pandemic, other workers – not as well compensated as Mississauga’s firefighters – are eager to position themselves for a wage top-up.
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