As the government continues to claim that it is the most prepared it has ever been for a fire season, wildland firefighters are sounding the alarm that the government is heading into a red zone of danger.
“Wildland firefighters have a serious and essential job—protecting Alberta from the ravages of forest fires,” says Mike Dempsey, vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents wildland firefighters. “Firefighters shouldn’t also have to put out fires that management is setting in the workplace.”
Since the government adopted the 1GX pay system on all government employees, firefighters have reported constant pay problems, particularly for workers doing evening and weekend shifts. They have been receiving paycheques with less money than they earned from their work. Managers have repeatedly pointed to technical errors and “incorrect calculations,” but the pay problems persist.
“We’re hearing from firefighters that they’ve had to borrow money from friends and family to pay their bills,” Dempsey says. “They’re incredibly frustrated by how long it is taking to fix these pay problems, and it’s affecting morale on the job.”
Even though some workers have not been paid in over a month, they keep working but need their managers to resolve the many problems with 1GX.
“Firefighters have made every effort to flag the issue internally and get it resolved. This has been happening for months now, and management still hasn’t fixed the pay problems,” Dempsey says. “Administrative issues shouldn’t be for firefighters to fix. These workers need to concentrate on keeping Albertans safe. That’s their job, not fixing the government’s avoidable mistakes.”
Along with the 1GX pay problems, firefighters also say that the neglectful government sent letters for seasonal employment to potential workers less than a month before the proposed start date. Because of this last-minute recruitment, firefighters say that they’ve lost many colleagues to jobs elsewhere. Employee turnover, normally around 25 per cent, was around 50 per cent this year.
Along with the loss of valuable experience by increased turnover, Dempsey notes that the UCP significantly cut wildfire security, including by cancelling the Rappel Program (RAP)—where the UCP eliminated 63 specially-trained firefighter jobs. RAP firefighters deployed by helicopter to otherwise-inaccessible areas.
“The UCP likes to say that they’re protecting lives and livelihoods,” Dempsey says. “So why can’t they help firefighters—whose entire job is to protect Albertans’ lives and livelihoods? If that was anything more than an empty slogan, they would have fixed this problem by now.”
Dempsey says that firefighters have repeatedly contacted him to express their stress and anger with the government-imposed dysfunction. He says that firefighters are worried about the government’s capacity to respond to wildfires when the fire season peaks in July and August.
“If this government can’t even manage its own payroll, how are they going to manage the very real threats of forest fires?” Dempsey asks. “These workers put themselves at risk every day to keep Albertans safe. It’s time for the government fix its own mistakes so these brave workers can keep saving lives.”
Mike Dempsey is available for comment. Contact Jon Milton, Communications Officer, at email@example.com