Toronto Star

October 20, 1999

Women win pay equity ruling - again

But union fears Ottawa will appeal to delay paying

By Valerie Lawton
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - Tens of thousands of civil servants - most of them women - have won the latest round in a 16-year, multi-billion-dollar pay equity battle with the federal government.

Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada were elated by a Federal Court decision yesterday, but fear Ottawa will appeal and again delay paying what could amount to as much as $5 billion in raises and back pay.

The marathon legal fight stretches back to 1984 when PSAC filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission contending that workers in the mainly female clerical group were underpaid in comparison with male administration employees.

A Human Rights Tribunal said last year that Ottawa must pay 13 years of back wages amounting to between $4 billion and $5 billion to close the wage gaps.

Ottawa disputed that decision, and the Treasury Board filed an appeal with the Federal Court in July.

Despite yesterday's victory, cheques are still not on the way to Rita Cantalini and 200,000 other clerical and support workers.

`Rah, rah, rah, it's a victory. But is it?'' said Cantalini, a secretary making just over $30,000 a year at Transport Canada's civil aviation office in Toronto.

``The government is so infamous for stalling tactics.''

Treasury Board President Lucienne Robillard said she needs a few days to study the court decision before announcing her plans.

``I'm not delaying anything,'' said Robillard. ``I know our employees are really anxious about knowing the decision of my government . . . I'm committed to give them the orientation in the near future.''

The government could appeal all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, potentially stretching the process out for years more.

Federal Court Justice John Evans called the dispute a matter that has ``dragged on for far too long, and at far too great a cost for all concerned.

''I would be reluctant to grant a remedy that would have the effect of imposing further delay, with the consequent injustice that this would inflict on many,'' Evans wrote.

``Justice unduly delayed in this context is indeed likely to be justice denied.''

He dismissed the government's bid for a judicial review of a 1998 Canadian human rights tribunal decision setting out a method for calculating what is owed to the workers.

Government lawyers had argued the tribunal's formula was flawed because it did not compare jobs of equal value.

But the judge said the government's preferred approach to interpreting applicable laws and guidelines was ``too abstract'' and based on the ``narrowest possible interpretation of the Canadian Human Rights Act.''

The dispute dates back to 1983, when the union filed a wage discrimination complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission on behalf of clerical workers.

Some 200,000 current and former clerical and support workers, most of them women, are now seeking back pay dating back to 1984 plus interest.

That could total as much as $5 billion. The union estimates each month of delay in paying means an extra $2 million in interest.

The affected employees include secretaries, clerks, data processors, librarians, educational support and health services staff.

Cantalini said it's frustrating to know her boss is making so much more than she is.

``I'm basically making him look good,'' she said. ``I feel like I'm the backbone.''

She is also tired of waiting for pay equity.

``It's demoralizing as a woman,'' said Cantalini, 38.

A public servant for 11 years, she figures the court decision means she's owed $55,000, less taxes.

Cantalini's husband also earns a modest income as a small business manager and they dream of using the money to pay for their first family vacation in eight years, fixing up their kitchen and leaky bathroom and paying down some credit card debt.

Workers would get an average of $30,000 if the government complies with the tribunal formula, union officials said. Payments will range between $500 and $60,000, depending on the number of years worked and salary level.

``It's not the money. It's the principle,'' said Colette Gervais, a retired payments clerk who worked for the government for 40 years and lives in Gatineau, Que., near Ottawa.

Gervais, 60, said workers are only fighting for what they are owed.

She remembers her working years with some bitterness.

``I could be sitting beside somebody who's a male who's getting a higher level of pay for doing practically the same thing that I was doing,'' she said.

``We could never see why they were doing this. They told me `Because he's a male.' I was even told `Because he was married.' ''

The Public Service Alliance of Canada said the time for the government to pay up is now.

``There is no longer any reason for further delaying pay equity,'' said Nycole Turmel, the union's acting national president.

The government has previously put a $1.3 billion pay equity offer on the table.

Turmel said the union isn't interested in negotiating now that it has the Federal Court decision supporting its position.

She also warned of a ``strong reaction of anger, frustration'' if the government appeals. She said there could be protests and sit-ins if that happens.

The union has the backing of federal NDP Leader Alexa McDonough.

``This government supports the pay equity principle as long as it does not have to treat women as equals, as long as it does not have to pay any money,'' McDonough told the House of Commons during the daily question period.

As she spoke, Reform MPs shouted: ``Who's going to pay?''

``The federal government has to ensure they're not paying more than they need to pay. They absolutely must appeal this,'' said Reform finance critic Monte Solberg.

Solberg said that if the full amount is paid by the government, most Canadians can kiss their year 2000 tax cut goodbye.

But Finance Minister Paul Martin declined to say whether the full amount of the ruling would throw his budgetary process off course and potentially delay either tax cuts expected next February or action on a children's agenda.

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