UCP government reverses controversial pay, overtime rules for wildfire lookout observers

The Alberta government has reinstated pay and overtime exemptions for fire lookout observers, ending arbitrarily imposed interim rules the observers’ union said had led to several undetected fires and increased the risk to public safety and property.

The government’s decision follows a CBC News investigation that revealed up to 10 lookout towers were not staffed at any given time because lookout observers were on forced days off and reverses a controversial NDP policy.

At least three recent wildfires, including one near High Level, started and burned for up a day before they were reported by the public because local observers were on their days off, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said.

The union had asked Tim Grant, Alberta’s public service commissioner, to intervene, and AUPE vice-president Mike Dempsey said the commissioner “came on board” a day after the issue was made public by CBC News.

On June 13, Labour Minister Jason Copping granted a request from Alberta’s public service commissioner to exempt lookout observers from labour rules, enacted in 2018 under the former NDP government, that required them to take a day off every week.

The exemption effectively reinstates the old pay and overtime system for observers. It expires in two years.

Dempsey said this is good news for the observers, and for the public.

“Folks can breathe a sigh of relief when they go out into the forest to recreate or to work, that if a fire is started, that it will be caught pretty darn quick,” he said.

NDP labour code changes created problem

There are 127 lookout towers across the province, each covering an area of about 5,000 square kilometres. Only one observer staffs each tower during fire season. Their primary job is to detect and call in smoke and fires in their area.

Because of the isolated and critical nature of their work, lookout observers were exempt from the old employment standards code. They worked seven days a week, sometimes up to 16 hours a day. They received an extra day’s pay every week in lieu of overtime.

But their exemption expired in November 2018, after the NDP government legislated changes to the code. The union said that, without consulting them beforehand or attempting to negotiate, the government’s wildfire management branch issued interim rules for observers at the beginning of this fire season, compliant with the new employment code.

The William Switzer fire tower, located near Hinton, Alta. (Therese Kehler/CBC)

Under the interim rules, observers had to take a day off each week, leaving their lookouts unstaffed. The ministry also was required to pay overtime to the observers.

To offset the potential overtime costs, the ministry prorated the observers’ pay based on the severity of the wildfire threat and they also were not allowed to work more than 12 hours a day.

The union said many staff were blindsided by the changes, which it estimated cut observers’ pay between 30 and 60 per cent. More than 60 grievances were filed and several seasoned observers quit.

Under the new agreement, observers will receive retroactive pay and those who quit will likely be rehired, Dempsey said.

No explanation for government inaction, union says

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen previously declined an interview request, and instead issued an emailed statement earlier this month that didn’t address the issues of undetected fires, unstaffed lookout towers, or why the government didn’t act to negotiate new rules with the union before the fire season.  

Instead, Dreeshen’s statement blamed the former NDP government for introducing “changes to labour laws that negatively impacted lookout employees” and he said they would work with the union to resolve the issue.

Former NDP premier Rachel Notley had said her government always intended to continue exemptions for observers until a new agreement could be reached. Notley said the exemption “expired in error and it was not brought to our attention,” and she urged the UCP to immediately fix the issue.

Dempsey said all he saw was political finger pointing.

“We received no explanation why it happened in the first place,” he said.

At least one veteran observer who quit won’t be returning. John Clough was an observer for 29 years. He quit in frustration five weeks into the season, and after hearing about an undetected fire near Edson that grew to 200 hectares because a neighbouring lookout tower was not staffed.

“I don’t think that outfit is worth working for anymore,” Clough said from his home in Nakusp, B.C., adding that he didn’t trust the government to maintain the employment and pay standards.

“I am still comfortable with the decision I made because the way [Alberta] Forestry treated the whole thing was unconscionable.”

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