Paramedics cite 'pattern of disrespect' but hopeful for better chapter after arbitrator's ruling
Arbitrator found fire-paramedic chief breached respectful workplace policies, fined city $100K last week
After a damning arbitrator's decision last week that determined Winnipeg's fire-paramedic chief breached respectful workplace policies and fined the city more than $100,000, paramedics are asking — "What happens now?"
"When you feel you are supported and respected and believed when you bring forward concerns, it's much easier [to do your job]," said advance care paramedic and union representative Troy Reidy, one of two paramedics who talked with CBC News about their reaction to Wednesday's decision.
"But when … you feel you are not being taken seriously and not being valued, it's not about being offended by a choice of words. It's about a culture and a pattern of disrespect that we felt we were subjected to," said Reidy, who believes the problem runs through "the senior administration, [from] the chief on down."
A summary in a brochure and comments from Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane at a conference in 2015 sparked an investigation and an arbitration hearing last year.
The brochure summary suggested paramedics and their "misinformed leaders" threatened the fire-based service.
"The speakers in this workshop will present how they use facts to thwart rhetoric and protect the service they provide," it said.
In his ruling last week, arbitrator Arne Peltz was critical of Lane, saying he breached respectful workplace policies in 2015. Peltz also said the outcome might have been different had he made a sincere apology in a timely manner.
The arbitrator wrote Lane's subsequent apology was "insufficient and insincere."
Reidy told CBC News that there have been marked improvements in the culture between firefighters and paramedics since the two services were amalgamated in 2000.
But he said there are still issues with administration in the service. He said efforts to bring forward better practices for patient care and training, and issues with reporting tools, have fallen on deaf ears for some time.
Reidy said Lane's 2015 comments, and the arbitrator's finding, point to a lack of respect for paramedics, and a lingering question about whether Lane — their boss — has their backs.
"That is a perception that has been created, and I think under the events of the last few days has been perpetuated. We felt that this could be the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new and better chapter," Reidy said.
The day after the arbitrator's ruling was released, Mayor Brian Bowman said he hadn't yet read the report — and wasn't sure when he would.
"It's going to depend on my calendar and how long it is. I haven't even got a copy of it yet, so … I expect in the coming weeks I'll have a chance to review it more fully," Bowman said last week.
Those comments, and others from one of the city's top bureaucrats, further angered the paramedics.
I honestly would be looking at removing the fire chief. I think that when basically half of his employees don't have confidence in him, that's a problem.- U of W professor Aaron Moore
"The way people testify, of course, doesn't necessarily represent how they lead a department," said chief corporate services officer Michael Jack following the arbitrator's ruling.
"We know the chief has learned a lot through this process. We have, too."
Ryan Woiden, an advance care paramedic with the City of Winnipeg for 18 years and currently the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union Local 911 — the paramedics' union — says the last few days have increased concerns among his colleagues.
"We've had members that have come to us and said, 'Now what? What is going on? How do we come forward to you with some concerns or challenges that we think that we are seeing on the street, the street level, knowing that if you bring it forward it will be dismissed?'" Woiden said.
'Re-think the administration'
The controversy has some observers wondering if paramedics and firefighters should continue to work under one service.
"At the very least they have to re-think the administration of it," said University of Winnipeg political science professor Aaron Moore.
"I think one of the issues we are seeing now is basically having someone from the firefighters as the head of the entire firefighters and paramedics [service], and that's clearly causing some issues."
Moore said the dissension and lack of trust among paramedics, and the arbitrator's ruling, should prompt city officials to consider whether Lane should continue as chief.
"I honestly would be looking at removing the fire chief. I think that when basically half of his employees don't have confidence in him, that's a problem," Moore told CBC News.
Alan Levy, a Manitoba arbitrator and mediator, said if the city is going to continue its support for Lane, it needs to offer its rationale to the public.
"The question that the mayor needs to answer, and the media needs to ask him, is 'why?'" said Levy, an associate professor in Brandon University's department of business administration who is currently on an academic leave.
"Why do you support him? He cost us all this money, he behaved in a way in which the arbitrator clearly stated was egregiously wrong, and yet you still support this person. Why?"
Levy compared the situation to the private sector, where he says a board would likely have questioned a leader who was costing the firm money.
"It's even more serious in a public-sector organization such as the fire department, because it's taxpayers' money," he said.
But reopening a debate about amalgamation or considering firing the chief is not where Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman is at right now.
"The debate about the integrated model and some of the individuals involved in our operations is not new and I think it's really incumbent upon all parties — the union, as well as our chief and management to turn the page and work collaboratively together," Bowman said Tuesday.
Bowman said he now has read some of the arbitrator's report and intends to finish it soon. He also anticipates Lane will address the paramedics personally in the near future.
The paramedics who spoke to CBC News say a better working relationship doesn't necessarily mean tearing apart the WFPS. But both believe something has to change.
"We may not be able to turn back the clock on this amalgamated service — nor do we need to, if we can go forward finding a better way," Woiden said.
The arbitrator hs ordered all parties to get together in the next six weeks.