Workers at ORNGE, Ontario’s air ambulance service, are receiving retroactive raises after a court struck down Bill 124, known as the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019.
The legislation, passed by the Ford government, capped public sector salary increases at one per cent annually in the province.
A court challenge to the legislation by public-sector workers succeeded. On Nov. 29, 2022, Justice Markus Koehnen of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled the bill infringed on the rights to collective bargaining and freedom of association.
The province has appealed that ruling.
The raises for ORNGE workers
Back in September 2021, an arbitrator ruled that the unionized workers at ORNGE, represented by Unifor, would receive additional wage increases if Bill 124 was “repealed, amended or rendered inoperative” in a five-year period.
It provided retroactive wage adjustments as follows:
- Aug. 1, 2020 – an additional 1%
- Aug. 1, 2021 – an additional 1%
- Aug. 1, 2022 – an additional 1%
When Bill 124 was “rendered inoperative” by the court ruling, the union went back to the arbitrator and asked for the wage increases.
ORNGE, though, noted that the provincial government had appealed and it therefore made sense to wait for final judgment from the courts before any payments were made. It offered to pay interest on any payments should the government appeal fail..
It also took the position it would be bad for labour relations if it had to claw back payments from workers should the government win the appeal.
The union, though, pointed out that the award was clear in its wording, that inflation was rampant and employees needed their money now.
The arbitrator’s ruling
The arbitrator sided with the union. Its previous order was prescriptive — if the law was inoperative, certain payments would follow.
“It is true enough that the constitutional decision is under appeal, but significantly no stay has been sought,” it said. “Moreover, should the lower court decision be overturned, there would be nothing stopping the employer from recouping this overpayment (and salary and premium overpayments are regularly recovered).”
Agreements reached between the parties must be enforced, it said, absent truly exceptional circumstances — which were not present here, it ruled.
ORNGE was ordered to make the retroactive payments to all current and former employees within 30 days of the decision, which was dated Feb. 1, 2023.
For more information see ORNGE v UNIFOR, Local 2002, 2023 CanLII 5406 (ON LA)