City must pay $100K for fire-paramedic chief's breach of respectful workplace policy: arbitrator

A Manitoba arbitrator has ordered the City of Winnipeg to pay more than $100,000 in damages to its paramedics and their union after its fire-paramedic chief breached respectful workplace policies in 2015 — but said the outcome may have been different had the chief made a sincere apology in a timely manner.

Chief John Lane’s 2015 conference presentation violated policy, apology came late, arbitrator finds

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane (left, seated next to Winnipeg chief financial officer Mike Ruta) violated respectful workplace policy, an arbitrator found. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A Manitoba arbitrator has ordered the City of Winnipeg to pay more than $100,000 in damages to its paramedics and their union after its fire-paramedic chief breached respectful workplace policies in 2015 — but said the outcome may have been different had the chief made a sincere apology in a timely manner.

Arne Peltz made the award on Wednesday, 2½ years after Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane made a presentation about the city's integrated paramedic-fire service model at a firefighters conference in Maryland in August 2015.

A summary in a brochure for the event said the fire-based model was being "continuously threatened by single-role EMS providers and misinformed leaders. The speakers in this workshop will present how they use facts to thwart rhetoric and protect the service they provide."

Arbitrator Arne Peltz presided over the hearing. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union Local 911, which represents roughly 350 paramedics in the service, filed a complaint and grievance about the brochure in September 2015, signed by 156 members of the union. Later that month, the city hired an independent investigator to look into it, although the formal investigation didn't begin until February 2016.

In his award, Peltz agreed with the investigator's finding that Lane wasn't guilty of harassment, but the comments in the brochure were a violation of the city's respectful workplace policies and the union's collective agreement.

Peltz also found the chief's apology — delivered in November 2016, more than a year after the conference — was "unreasonably late, insufficient and insincere."

"The obvious and best response to a single act of disrespect, as occurred at the conference in August 2015, was a sincere apology," Peltz wrote. "It also would have been the least expensive resolution for the City."

'Mixed feelings' by MGEU

The ruling means $300 will be paid to each of the MGEU's paramedic members, well short of what the union sought — a payment of $1,500 each and a further $50,000 for the union itself for a total payment of more than $500,000.

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said the arbitrator's ruling validates the disrespect the paramedics felt from Chief John Lane. (Radio-Canada)

Despite the $1,200 difference in what they were seeking, the MGEU says it is pleased with the ruling.

"What it has done — the penalty — is shown the severity of the disrespect … the paramedics from the Winnipeg Fire Paramedics Service felt in their workplace,"  MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said.

At the same time, she says, she has "mixed feelings" about the entire thing.

The ruling validates "the disrespect that our members have felt through Chief Lane, the communication he did share and his thoughts and the disrespect that he shows to the paramedics of the City of Winnipeg," she said. "But it's unfortunate and disappointing that it ever came to this from the beginning."

​In an emailed statement to CBC News on Wednesday, the MGEU said paramedics would have been willing to accept a sincere apology at the outset.

'They've been heard'

Peltz disagreed with the union's assertion the city acted in bad faith, and denied several of the union's other requests, including requiring the chief to issue another apology, this time written by the union, and requiring the city to prepare a corrective action plan.

However, the arbitrator did order the chief and the union executive to meet with a professional facilitator within the next six weeks in "an effort to repair the damage caused by this dispute to the parties' working relationship."

The city will pay for the cost of the session.

Gawronsky says she doesn't believe the working environment has been affected greatly by the dispute and ruling.

"The landscape for the paramedics themselves, in their work, this hasn't changed anything other than they feel that they've been heard," she said.

"The paramedics and the firefighters work very, very well with the City of Winnipeg. They rely on each other, they depend on and respect each other totally.

"This is not about the firefighters and the paramedics themselves, this is about the paramedics and the disrespect that they felt from Chief Lane."

Gawronsky hopes the ruling is the first step toward "ensuring our paramedics are feeling respected and validated … and that the work that they do is valued by their employer, the City of Winnipeg.

"We look to the city to lead that change, and we are willing to work with them," she said.

Apology wasn't a priority: Peltz

​In his award, Peltz described Lane's testimony throughout the hearing as "constantly shifting."

Lane didn't write the text in the brochure himself, and although he edited it, the revisions he suggested weren't made due to a mix-up with conference officials.

Although Peltz said Lane initially testified he was "horrified" when he saw the version in the brochure, Peltz said Lane later appeared to retract that statement and said the offence was "in the eye of the beholder" before reversing course again.

Peltz also rejected Lane's testimony that he waited to apologize based on advice from Lianne Mauws, the manager of human resources for the City of Winnipeg, which independent investigator Pamela Clarke did not verify.

MGEU lawyer Keith LaBossiere reads the texts from Alex Forrest to Lane, right, during arbitration. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Mauws wasn't called to testify in the arbitration, and Peltz wrote "no explanation was provided by the City for not calling its Director of Human Resources on a pivotal issue of fact."

Lane testified he received Clarke's report in August 2016 while on vacation, and was advised by City of Winnipeg chief operating officer Michael Jack an apology would be "appropriate," although Jack didn't offer more direction.

At this point, the need for an apology was "crystal clear," Peltz wrote. Lane delivered the apology three months later and testified the further delay was caused by a busy September, including a chiefs' conference and personal vacation time, in addition to the need for the city to approve his apology text and format.

"I have considered the Chief's explanation for another three months of delay but it rings hollow. He simply failed to make it a priority," Peltz wrote.

Texts between Forrest, Lane scrutinized

During the hearing, texts sent from United Fire Fighters Of Winnipeg head Alex Forrest to Lane were scrutinized as MGEU lawyers questioned Lane about their relationship.

Lane provided his phone for inspection during the hearing, but a recent conversation between the two — hours before the hearing began — was one-sided, showing only texts from Forrest to Lane.

Peltz wrote that Lane initially testified his outgoing texts were auto-deleted, but when pressed on the matter said he had deleted them himself. 

Peltz said he was influenced by Lane's "lack of forthrightness" in explaining the exchange.

"It also appears that the Chief breached his undertaking not to discuss evidence in the case while under examination," Peltz wrote, although he said he couldn't make a definitive finding based on the one-sided conversation.

"To say the least, this episode was damaging to the Chief's credibility as a witness," Peltz wrote.​

With files from Caroline Barghout and Darren Bernhardt