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Ontario elevator strike refuses to lift

Disruption slows highrise construction, leaves occupants stuck on the stairs
Friday, June 14, 2013
Barbara Carss

Article updated Monday, June 17, 2013

Talks between Ontario’s elevator technician union and management cannot seem to get off the ground floor. An increasing number of elevators and escalators have been taken out of service since approximately 1,400 members of the International Union of Elevator Constructors (IUEC) Locals 50, 90 and 96 walked off the job May 1.

Retrofit and modernization projects are also on hold, causing concern among building owners and managers that the growing backlog could delay plans or prevent completion within capital budget timelines. The potential for slowdowns or work stoppages likewise threatens the highrise construction sector since at least one interior elevator is critical for moving supplies and workers efficiently.

“The exterior hoist is quite slow. It typically moves at 150 feet per minute so the interior elevator moves at three to five times the speed of the outside hoist,” explains Rob Isabelle, chief operating officer with elevator consulting firm KJA Consultants. “For the first couple weeks of the strike it didn’t necessarily affect construction but that’s starting to happen now. You can only go so far ahead of your elevators.”

Passengers may face longer waits for service and strenuous stair climbs. However, the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA), which is responsible for province-wide inspection and enforcement of elevator and escalator safety, has pledged that passengers will not face heightened risk.

Two weeks into the strike, the safety overseers issued the following statement: “During the labour disruption, TSSA will allow elevators that have not had minor maintenance tasks completed to continue operating in order to minimize the impact on the public.”

In early June, the TSSA announced “enhanced enforcement actions” to target high-risk elevators, review shutdown policies and investigate reports of unqualified personnel performing work.

“Safety regulations remain in full effect during the current labour dispute, and building owners are legally responsible for the maintenance and safe operation of elevating devices,” the release stated.

Managers and supervisors with the major employers encompassing the National Elevator Escalator Association (NEEA) – the bargaining unit for elevator and escalator companies – are responding to service calls on a priority basis, with people trapped in elevators taking precedence. Buildings with just one elevator, a significant number of mobility-challenged occupants and those serving “valued clients” are also high on the list.

“One of the most important things that building owners and managers can do is maintain communication with their local contractors to ensure there’s a shared understanding of what calls will be prioritized,” advises Peter Willmott, general manager of national property support services with Colliers International Canada.

Approximately 10 per cent of unionized elevator technicians at smaller companies are still on the job. By prior agreement, these companies will accept the eventual settlement. In turn, the IUEC agrees to allow their technicians to work through labour disruptions. This might create some pressure for the larger employers – Kone, Otis, Schindler and ThyssenKrupp Elevator – to settle sooner to avoid losing business to smaller competitors.

However, contract structure generally makes building owners and managers wary of switching service providers. Contracted companies, particularly those with proprietary technology, often retain the right to reject work that third party technicians perform on their systems.

“When the original contractors are back, they might say, ‘This work doesn’t meet our standards and we’re not sure what the liability is if something goes wrong’,” says Willmott. “You could void your contracts if another company has worked on the system.”

Even more importantly, safety regulations stipulate that only TSSA-certified technicians can perform elevator maintenance in Ontario.

“We are telling owners, ‘Do not send your building operators to try to do this work’,” stresses KJA’s Isabelle.

Attempts to reach an agreement have been sporadic, with no negotiations occurring from April 30 until the Ontario government intervened to appoint a mediator in late May. Following two days of meetings, formal talks broke off until June 11.

A recent NEEA statement points to industry seniority – specifically, allowing workers to retain their seniority when they switch companies – as the issue preventing a settlement. Employers would like to see this entitlement, which workers received in a 1970s-era arbitrated decision, grandfathered or eliminated. The statement does not refer to GPS monitoring of workers, which insiders identified as an issue when the strike began.

The NEEA also reported that as of May 31, more than 95 per cent of Ontario elevators and escalators maintained by Kone, Otis, Schindler and ThyssenKrupp are operational.

Consulting firms like KJA are currently facing downtime but are expecting a burst of activity once technicians return and begin tackling delayed elevator upgrade. Many projects are set to go since few owners and managers factored a multi-week strike into their capital budget plans.

“They have never really been off this long in recent history and I believe there will be some scheduling pressure now,” says Willmott. “Owners and managers should consider whether the timing of delays could also impact their operating expenses and complicate tenant move-ins or move-outs.”

Some members of IUEC Locals 50 and 90 returned to Greater Toronto Area (GTA) residential construction sites June 17, in accordance with an Ontario Labour Relations Board order.

Ontario’s Labour Relations Act limits labour disruption in the residential construction sector to a six-week period in the area encompassing Toronto, Durham, Halton, Peel and York Regions and Simcoe County. Elevator construction remains idle on residential construction sites elsewhere in the province, and in the commercial and institutional sectors.

Meanwhile, elevator technicians belonging to Montreal’s Local 89 and Quebec City’s Local 101 have walked off the job as part of a broader Quebec construction strike, also beginning June 17.

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management magazine.

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