Metrolinx employees will receive a pay hike of more than 8 per cent as a result of a deal struck mere days before last month's provincial election.
The raise demonstrates the difficult position the Ontario government is in as it struggles to control labour costs and balance its budget. The province is not enforcing a wage freeze, but will provide no new funding for pay increases, which means Metrolinx – and any other agency that gives its workers a raise – must take money from some other part of its budget to fund the increase.
Metrolinx operates the GO regional rail and bus networks in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and oversees transit planning for the region.
The agency and the union representing 1,850 of its employees made the 11th-hour deal at 2:20 a.m. on Monday June 2, averting a strike 10 days before Ontario voters went to the polls. Metrolinx did not release the details of the deal until last week.
The four-year contract gives workers raises of 1.8 per cent in each of the first two years, 2.3 per cent in the third year and 2.4 per cent in the final year. It covers 1,850 GO bus drivers, transit security, ticket sellers and administrative staff. Train drivers, who are contracted to Bombardier, are not part of the deal.
"We're going to find the efficiencies in order to be able to manage the raise," Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins said in an interview. "We think it's affordable and we'll be able to manage it within our existing operating budget."
Ms. Aikins said the increase will be paid for partly out of a budget item that covers regular increases in the cost of doing business, and partly by finding day-to-day efficiencies. One possible source, she said, is "staff gapping" – setting aside the money saved when there is a gap between an employee leaving and their replacement starting work.
The deal will cost $9.6-million over four years.
The money could have been better used to improve GO services, said Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris. The Kitchener MPP pointed to the plan to bring all-day, two-way train service to his home city as one project that could use an extra cash boost. While the government has promised all-day service to Kitchener, it has not put a firm start date on it.
Mr. Harris said he feared service improvements could be pushed back.
"You can't find [wage] increases out of thin air. It's got to come from somewhere," he said at Queen's Park Tuesday. "It's one of two options: you hike the fares or you cut services – and that could be a delay of commitments that they've made."
Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca refused to say if he thought the wage increase was a good use of money. Rather, he suggested, it's not his job to oversee operations, and that he is only concerned with the new capital spending the government has promised to sink into the system.
"This is money that Metrolinx will have to find within its allotment that it receives from the provincial government," he said. "As the minister of transportation what I am focused on, what I have been given the responsibility to deliver on, is making sure that the $29-billion that our budget and our campaign platform earmarked for transit and transportation actually gets delivered."
In the grand scheme of things, the money is a relatively small amount, Ms. Aikins said. Metrolinx's annual operating budget, for instance, is $600-million, of which the yearly pay increase is less than 1 per cent.
She said it's "difficult to speculate" on what the funds would have been used for if they had not been set aside for the raise.
"Sometimes, people think that if you had saved the money, you could build the downtown relief line. That certainly wouldn't be the case," she said. "The amount of money is not enough to build transit."