Oak Bay police union disputes reasoning for lower pay

A pay dispute involving unionized Oak Bay officers has raised the question of whether all Greater Victoria’s police officers should be paid the same or whether those regularly dealing with more-serious calls should receive a higher rate.

The Oak Bay Police Association, without a contract since the end of December, is asking for a wage increase on par with raises police unions in Victoria, Saanich and Central Saanich ratified last year.

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That increase is 3.5 per cent in the first year and 2.5 per cent for each of the following two years. Those raises are in line with what the Vancouver police union negotiated after going to arbitration in 2016. The pay hike made Vancouver officers among the highest paid in Canada.

The Oak Bay police union and Greater Victoria Labour Relations Association, negotiating on behalf of the District of Oak Bay, reached an impasse over wages, sending the matter to arbitration.

The employers’ group argues that officers in the 26-member suburban force should not get the same raise as officers in Vancouver, who police the Downtown Eastside and deal with more drug offences and gang-related violence.

Kevin Murdoch, an Oak Bay councillor and chair of the Greater Victoria Labour Relations Association, pointed to arbitrator Stan Lanyon’s decision on Vancouver police wages, in which he acknowledged local conditions should be considered when setting police pay.

Murdoch said the board is offering a 2.5 per cent raise for each of the next four years, which is comparable to deals reached by the Delta and Nelson police unions. While the departments differ in size — Delta has 190 police officers and Nelson has 18 — both are suburban forces which, like Oak Bay, follow a no-call-too-small community policing model.

An Oak Bay police first-class constable with five years of experience is paid $42.24 an hour, compared with a Victoria police first-class constable, who is paid $44.79 an hour.

Sgt. Rob Smith, president of the Oak Bay Police Association, said the size and call load of the department hasn’t been a factor in previous negotiations.

“It’s been largely acknowledged that we have the same training and are expected to go to the same sort of calls. A police officer is a police officer,” Smith said. “We just always got what everybody else got and this is the first time we’ve had to go to arbitration.”

It’s important that Oak Bay officers have wages comparable to other police in the region to retain existing members and attract new ones, Smith said.

Kash Heed, a former B.C. solicitor general, said Oak Bay officers are exposed to the same dangers as those in Victoria. “These police officers are trained at the exact same level. You can’t judge it by the frequency of a major event.”

He pointed to homicides in Oak Bay such as the Christmas Day killings of two young girls, Chloe and Aubrey Berry, and the 2007 murder-suicide that saw Peter Lee kill his wife, her parents and the couple’s child before killing himself.

Oak Bay officers also work in regional units such as the Integrated Road Safety Unit. That means pay discrepancy between departments would be problematic, Heed said.

Even within a single department such as Vancouver police, officers assigned to the affluent area of Shaughnessy are paid the same as those assigned to the Downtown Eastside, he said.

Ken Thornicroft, a law and labour relations professor at the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business, said arbitrators take into account working conditions and workload.

“The argument might be that if you’re in a large urban police force like Vancouver or even Victoria, it has many of the problems that a large urban area police force would have,” he said.

“And one could certainly make the argument that the working conditions in those types of areas are different and perhaps more challenging than the working conditions in a small suburban force that doesn’t have the same type of crime.”

Thornicroft said the arbitrator will likely look at whether Oak Bay has historically matched pay raises of other departments.

Another factor, Thornicroft said, is the labour market and whether wages for Oak Bay police are competitive enough to attract a large contingent of qualified applicants.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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