TORONTO — Ontario's air ambulance service must give its paramedics retroactive pay after wage restraint legislation known as Bill 124 was struck down, an arbitrator has ruled.
The law, which capped salary increases for broader public sector workers for three years, was ruled unconstitutional in November, but the government is appealing that.
Unifor, which represents paramedics at Ornge, said their contract from 2021 that was subject to Bill 124 contained a re-opener clause stating that if the law is repealed or rendered inoperative, they are owed retroactive pay of an additional one per cent for each of the three years.
The Ornge members, who work in both air and ground ambulances, went to the arbitrator to enforce that clause and in a decision this week he directed the employer to make the payments within 30 days.
Ornge said it intends to comply with the ruling.
"Ornge’s priority has always been to negotiate fair and competitive settlements with paramedics while being a good steward of provincial funding," the organization said in a statement.
Ornge had argued before the arbitrator that the appeal should make its way through the courts before any decisions are made on the payments, because it wouldn't be good for labour relations if it had to claw back the money should the government win the case.
But the arbitrator disagreed, saying that the employees shouldn't have to wait for the eventual judgment of the courts to be paid.
"(The contract).says that if a certain event happens – Bill 124 is rendered inoperative – certain payments will follow," William Kaplan wrote in a decision this week.
"It is true enough that the constitutional decision is under appeal, but significantly no stay has been sought. Moreover, should the lower court decision be overturned, there would be nothing stopping the employer from recouping this overpayment."
The decision may have implication beyond the paramedics, as Bill 124 affected more than 700,000 workers in the province, including nurses, teachers and public servants.
Ontario's financial accountability officer wrote in a report in September that Bill 124 was set to save the province $9.7 billion on public-sector salaries and wages, though a successful appeal could all but wipe that out.
If it gets overturned and repealed, that could cost the province $8.4 billion over five years, including a potential $2.1 billion in retroactive payments, the FAO wrote.
Unifor national president Lana Payne said in a statement that she congratulates the paramedics for "fighting back."
“These are the victories that fuel us and prove that we must never give up,” she wrote.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Doug Downey said because the matter is still before the court it would be inappropriate to comment.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2022.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press