On Tuesday, December 6, just weeks before the Christmas holidays, CUPE 66 emergency dispatchers for the City of Mississauga were told they were immediately being laid off, as a private contractor took over their jobs on the same day.
“This was completely unexpected after we had received such exemplary reviews in August,” said Alana Cahill*, one of the 15 dispatchers. “On Tuesday, management very crudely informed us that we were out of a job. We were all in such shock. There was no warning.”
The emergency dispatch unit staff, housed within the city’s transportation and works department, took high priority calls from residents routed via 311 and coordinated the city field officers’ response to a variety of urgent situations ranging from threat from wild animals in city parks to obstructions on city streets and main ways endangering lives of pedestrians and motorists.
The dispatchers would also take direct calls from City Councillors to address constituents’ complaints relating to infrastructure repair, animal services and parking control.
“We deal with so many difficult situations and rely on our experience and training to provide Mississauga residents the help they need. For instance, we have had people calling us when surrounded by coyotes at a park. One woman called us while screaming on the phone, and my colleague had to walk her through the situation, ensuring that she and her dog were safe, until animal services could arrive on the scene and take care of the coyotes,” Cahill said.
The workers said that the unexpected layoffs seemed particularly harsh as the group of workers – predominantly women – had strived to provide exceptional service to their fellow residents and City Councillors, and were accustomed to receiving compliments for their work.
The laid off dispatchers also questioned the credentials of Alliance Inc, a firm based in Kingston, Ontario, to match the customer service provided by Mississauga-based workers to their fellow residents.
Cahill said the dispatchers were highly skilled workers who relied on their knowledge of the city, compassion, and experience to serve residents, and simply contracting out their jobs to an entirely new group of workers not familiar with local circumstances would worsen service quality.
“This is not a job that can be easily done by a new group of workers who can’t rely on more experienced colleagues for assistance,” she said. “Plus, if they are not based in Mississauga, how committed will they really be to local residents?”
Deborah Foster*, another dispatcher, said part of their role was checking-in with the field officers responding to emergencies and ensuring their safety through GPS tracking and radio communications. But she said the contractor’s staff did not possess the equipment to maintain radio interactions with field officers, which would compromise workers’ safety.
In a brief speech to city workers last Tuesday, management rationalized the “business decision” to outsource the jobs by pointing to 20 overnight shifts that had gone unfulfilled in the past year.
But Foster said management should be held responsible for scheduling failures, as they had refused to create more permanent positions to cover shifts in a 24/7 operation.
“Their rationale is absurd. And clearly, their entire operation was premised on saving costs as evidenced by the fact that only one out of 15 workers had a full-time, permanent position,” she said.
Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, said it was a shameful move by the City of Mississauga to terminate contracts of workers merely weeks before the holidays, and called on city council to intervene.
“This is an appalling way to deliver public services. Instead of consulting the workers and finding a solution that would work for both parties, the City of Mississauga’s management made the outrageous decision to fire them and contract out their jobs,” he said. “These are dedicated city workers who have shown great commitment to their fellow residents, and this is a disgraceful way to treat them.”
Public services are most effective and cost-efficient when delivered publicly, Hahn said. Outsourcing to private firms geared towards profit maximization deteriorates working conditions and undermines service quality.
*Alana Cahill and Deborah Foster are pseudonyms to shield the workers’ identity and protect them from potential repercussions