The Myth About Sick Leave and Public Servants

Well, here we go again. The summer is on its way out and public servants everywhere are making their way back to their workplaces. They are preparing for a year that, according to many Public Service (PS) unions, promises to be a banner bargaining round—one where some unions say sick leave is the line in the sand and will not be on the table. No doubt Treasury Board President Tony Clement has other ideas about that.

The sick leave issue has been referred to as a $5-billion liability (the estimated value of the unused, banked public service sick leave). Or, to put it another way, the equivalent of pay the government would have to foot if every public servant left work sick on the same day and never came back. Does anyone really believe that this is possible? While even a union president, past or current, would have to admit, as in any workplace, abuses take place. However, the vast majority of public servants will leave public service life with literally years of sick leave credits in their bank, never to be taken.

So, if sick leave is not the liability the government says it is, and if there is not really any “real” money/liability attached, then why is this government pushing the sick leave bargaining agenda? The answer is it is part of its shell-game playbook. It is not the real issue.

The Conservative shell game is very effective in dealing with its public service unions. Its strategy has been deviously simple. First, get the public pumped up against public servants by making them out as societies “haves” and pointing to things like their huge (but irrelevant) sick leave banks. Second, appeal to Canadians with a platform of fixing the public service. Third, go after the real money, the kind of money that is invested in the current defined benefit pension plans, all the while garnering public support with the public focus on nonsense like sick leave. A perfect deception.

The truth of the matter is sick leave is not a real issue at all. In a shell- game, it is not what is happening in the hand that you see, the interesting stuff is happening in the hand you don’t see. A case in point is the erosion of the public service defined benefit pension plans across the board and as-of-yet articulated impact on society. The government’s shedding of liability and responsibility is a real money grab like no other, far more pervasive than a sick leave.

In December of last year, the Alward government of New Brunswick repealed the N.B. Public Service Pension Act, which essentially eliminated any liability on the government’s part for paying its employees’ pension indexing and cost of living allowances— promises made to past and current public servants. This repeal is being fought in court by the N.B. Pensioners Coalition but, astonishingly and disappointingly, not by the PS unions. This will mean there is no guarantee of indexing for pensioners, higher premiums and lower pensions for current public servants. This new shared-risk model is misnamed. Perhaps more appropriately called the no-risk-to-government model, it will see government hand over the management and investments of funds to private sector interests who will take a healthy commission off the top, while reducing—or even eliminating—indexing and cost of living allowances. There is no shared risk. Risk is transferred to the employees and pensioners.

New Brunswick is just the tip of the iceberg the tide is pushing aground. In August, firefighters and police “disgraced themselves” (not my words) in Montreal when they shut down city hall to protest Bill 3. This bill was introduced by the provincial government to close a municipal pension gap approaching $4-billion. Bill 3 would override existing agreements in 1,100 municipalities and affect some 216 existing defined benefit pension plans, leaving unionized employees to retroactively contribute far more to their pension premiums while having to share the cost of any plugging past deficits. Existing pensioners would no longer be guaranteed cost-of-living increases while the province refers to its power to order binding arbitration if an agreement is not reached within a set deadline.

Sound familiar? Is it a model that Treasury Board is looking at? You can bet your salary on it. The reality is that this is happening and it is likely coming to the federal public service plan. It could make one ill enough to want to take a sick day or two.