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Federal worker award program gave away jewellery and gift cards

Treasury Board President Tony Clement delivers a speech in Ottawa, Tuesday October 8, 2013. The Treasury Board Secretariat, with about 1,900 employees, now spends well over $100,000 each year on rewards for staff.


Gold necklaces, hockey tickets, camcorders, iPods, spa visits – even a gift card to the liquor store.

Those were some of the half-million dollars worth of booty that one federal department handed out to favoured workers in the past five years.

The Treasury Board Secretariat, with about 1,900 employees, now spends well over $100,000 each year on rewards for staff.

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The annual value has quadrupled since 2006, when the Conservative government first came to power, hitting a peak of $135,000 in 2011, the year the Conservative government began cutting staff and programs to wipe out the federal deficit by 2015.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement has recently criticized the benefits available to public servants, and publicly vowed to trim them, putting him at odds with unions.

But internal documents show his department has been ever more generous with its so-called "Instant Awards" program, sometimes handing out goods and services worth as much as $500 a pop.

The haul includes a Sears sewing machine, a notebook computer, a Tiffany ring, a Garmin GPS device, along with a wide range of cash cards for spas, restaurants, gas stations, pubs, Toys "R" Us, Canadian Tire, Shoppers Drug Mart, Tim Hortons and Starbucks.

The cheapest employee rewards have been $10 gift cards for coffee shops or for a bowling alley. One worker was handed a French grammar book worth $14.65, which to some may sound more like a punishment than a reward.

At the high end, many employees were given $500 gift cards for use at Best Buy, for example, or at the downtown Rideau Centre mall for merchandise in most of the shops. One worker in the "expenditure management sector" received a $50 gift card for use at any Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet.

The internal documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, list the names of the workers, but do not spell out the reasons for the hundreds of awards.

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Such awards are considered taxable benefits under Canada Revenue Agency rules, and are often listed under both their "gross" value, reported to the taxman, and the "net" value in the hands of the worker.

A $10 gift certificate to Second Cup, for example, is listed as worth $14.29 gross, as reported to CRA. The difference is the tax the employee is expected to pay on the benefit, tax that is paid out by the department.

Awards programs have a cap of $500 net for each item.

Controversy over employee awards arose a year ago, when a New Democrat MP asked several departments whether they had purchased tickets for sporting events. Mr. Clement's response was that Treasury Board had bought four employees $1,109 worth of NHL tickets to Senators' games between 2009 and 2011.

The minister banned purchases of sporting-event tickets soon after the NDP made the information public.

The Foreign Affairs Department also banned such purchases when it was revealed officials had spent $69,498 on hockey and baseball tickets at U.S. missions between 2006 and 2012, largely to promote Canadian exports.

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Federal policy encourages rewards for employees' good work, but notes that "recognition often has no cost involved."

"Informal and no-cost recognition – it takes a minute," says a human-resources document on the Treasury Board website.

"Write a Bravo card – leaving a card on the employee's desk just to say 'Bravo, job well done'. … Stick a post-it-note saying 'Thanks' on the employee's workspace."

Most departments and agencies have employee recognition programs, many with an "Instant Awards" element, a management tool authorized across government in 1990.

One internal survey showed managers prefer "Instant Awards" programs because they're easy to administer and less expensive than more formal awards.

The Treasury Board, which is responsible for government-wide policies on access to information, delivered the "Instant Awards" documents more than two months after expiry of the statutory deadline set by the Access to Information Act.

A Treasury Board spokeswoman did not respond to a request last week for comment and information.

Total value of "Instant Awards" given to workers at the Treasury Board Secretariat, by calendar year:

2006: $24,515.42

2007: $34,625.70

2008: $68,548.24

2009: $90,646.60

2010: $112,176.90

2011: $134,822.01

2012: $110,293.84

(Source: Treasury Board of Canada)

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