Robyn Benson, PSAC

Public Service Week, Harper government style

Clement gesture.JPG

What a brilliant way to kick off Public Service Week: end-run the collective bargaining process and implicitly accuse public workers of fraud at the same time.

Any wonder we’re not exactly keen on getting involved?

The government’s response to a just-released, mildly favourable report from the Public Interest Commission for our FB group (border security) is the same as it was a few weeks back: to circumvent the collective bargaining process and force a membership vote on its final offer. The PIC, whose report has been awaited for months, might as well have saved its breath. The government refused to meet with the PSAC even to discuss its contents.

Bad faith doesn’t begin to cover it. We’ve been trying to negotiate a contract for the FB group since 2011. The government’s strategy has been to delay, and delay again. It’s treated the PIC process as a joke, and now it’s just walked away. This isn’t merely a gesture of disrespect towards the bargaining team and the union leadership. It’s a flick of contempt for every single FB member working to keep our borders secure.

And the same week, Treasury Board President Tony Clement decided to announce the end of sick leave, suggesting that public workers are abusing the system.

Radical changes to the present system were contained in the budget, and we made our position clear at the time.

But now Clement has thrown down the proverbial gauntlet. He claims that “absenteeism” in the Public Service amounts to more than 18.2 days a year, and he wants to scrap the entire sick-leave system.

Even if that figure is accurate, the time off that is averaged includes long-term disability and worker’s compensation and unpaid sick leave, too. So someone away for a year, for example, recovering from injuries or fighting cancer, is lumped in with another person who might have taken no sick leave at all. Unpaid sick leave, used by only 5% of all federal public workers, includes long-term disability, and EI paid to workers who are waiting for those long-term disability benefits to begin.

We get a few bushels of Clement’s public sector-private sector apples and oranges as well. Provincial and federal labour standards do not require private employers to provide paid sick leave. Many do not. When a worker is absent due to illness, it’s just an unpaid work day, and doesn’t find its way into the statistics.

The pressure is also on, where there is no paid sick leave, for workers to come in to work sick. A study in the US concludes that the costs of doing that are substantial—longer recovery times, lower productivity, and a higher likelihood of workplace accidents. That’s the environment in much of the private sector, which Clement insists on comparing favourably to the federal Public Service.

Doing more and more work with fewer and fewer people, not to mention the thousands of “affected” notices hanging over the heads of federal public workers, has been taking its toll—about half of current sick leave claims are due to stress, depression and anxiety. Health Canada, which manages the federal government’s Employee Assistance Plan, reported a spike in calls when the current wave of cuts was announced. “Survivor guilt” also plays its role in what has become a toxic work environment for many.

Finally, Treasury Board itself concedes that a key factor in the rise in days off for sickness is the ageing Public Service demographic. On average, public workers are significantly older than those in the general workforce, and are statistically at higher risk for illness and disability.

But rather than look at the causes, Clement prefers to blame the victims.

Some journalists, meanwhile, are acting like government stenographers. They repeat the “18 days” number uncritically. And they unquestioningly refer to the “$5.2 billion liability” allegedly created by banking sick leave—as if every single day of it were going to be claimed. Here, for example, is Greg Weston:

According to one informed estimate, public servants are currently sitting on about $5.2-billion worth of accumulated sick leave, a potential tidal wave of future absenteeism.

“Potential tidal wave?” That’s not how the current system works, and Clement and his media cheerleaders know it. Managers who suspect abuse can, and do, demand medical certificates. Many public workers don’t come close to using up their banked sick leave, which vanishes upon retirement. But, as a form of insurance, it is there for those unfortunate enough to come down with serious long-term illnesses.

The system Clement wants to replace it with would reduce salary for those incapacitated to 70%. Sick leave days would be drastically cut back, and very few of them could be carried over from one year to the next.

The man who diverted nearly $50 million from border security to build gazebos and beautify parks in his own riding, now presumes, in effect, to lecture public workers on personal accountability. He suggests a need for “active case management” to catch alleged cheaters:

Clement said the more active case management will include more followup with workers who are off to ensure they are getting the appropriate support. But it will also help catch those who are trying to cheat the system.

“In any cases of unwarranted absenteeism, we’ll be able to track that a lot better and make sure people are not taking advantage of the system,” said Clement.

Does he believe that this scapegoating of the sick will draw attention away from Duffygate, Harpergate, and all the other scandals in which the Conservatives are presently drowning?

Sick leave is our line in the sand, and the Harper government had better be prepared for the huge backlash that awaits it if it presses on. To repeat: we are not trading, it, selling it, swapping it or giving it away.

Meanwhile, while cuts continue, the collective bargaining process is trashed and sick leave is on the chopping block, we are invited to join Public Service Week festivities. Adding insult to injury, it seems, is how the government prefers to celebrate it.

We’ll take a pass, thanks. We have work to do.

[Photo: Larry Wong/Postmedia News]

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on June 12, 2013 8:54 AM.

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