The federal minister in charge of the public service says he's open to speeding up federal layoffs if the unions are prepared to change the existing rules.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Treasury Board President Tony Clement responded to concerns from public service unions who say the current layoff process is creating undue stress. Under the existing rules, which were negotiated between the government and the unions, departments send out "affected" notices to staff whose positions may be terminated, but the number of affected staff is much larger than the actual number of jobs lost.
The Conservative government's March budget promised to eliminate 19,200 federal positions over the next three years.
"I have actually proposed to the public sector union leadership that this is a long, drawn-out process for a lot of people and we would be perfectly willing to have a dialogue with them if they were to see fit to change some of this to make it a little bit less stressful on people," said Mr. Clement in an interview this week in Toronto. "So far I haven't had a lot of co-operation on that but the door is always open."
The Globe reported last month that a distress line for federal public servants is on track to receive a record number of calls this year, partly due to the stress of the layoff process.
The director of Health Canada's Employee Assistance Program has said the office received 30,009 calls from January to the end of August. Of those, 155 calls were identified as suicidal-risk calls.
"It is not unexpected," said Mr. Clement of the high number of calls to the distress line. "The reason we have these support mechanisms in place are to deal with people who are going through a process. We try to be helpful, we try to be understanding. We try to connect people with potentially other new lines of work. So I think we are being a responsible employer in that regard."
Mr. Clement said he's trying to find "common sense" ways of dealing with the personal stress on staff, such as working with the Mayor of Ottawa to connect local businesses with out-of-work public servants.
"I am conscious that we are dealing with human beings with families, and I want to reduce their stress levels as much as possible, while still doing what we think is right for the taxpayers, and getting to our goals," he said.
Robyn Benson, the national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, disputes the minister's claim that unions are unwilling to discuss these issues and says PSAC has already asked for a meeting along those lines.
"The way in which this government is cutting jobs and services, with no transparency and without an end in sight, is making it difficult for workers in the public service," she said in a statement. Ms. Benson said the government is not using provisions in the existing rules that would make layoffs easier, such as a process called "alternation" in which an employee who wants to retire early can switch places with someone who is about to be laid off.
"We have asked on a number of occasions that the government actually apply the existing provisions of the contract, including alternation, to improve the process for affected public service workers," she said. "We've offered to meet with Clement to discuss this and look forward to that meeting."
Another president of a major federal union also denies Mr. Clement has ever made such an offer.
"We have not seen, nor are we aware of any 'proposal' by the minister's office to enter into a dialogue to reduce stress being experienced by our membership," said Gary Corbett, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, in an email. "We are already well on the record that we are not happy about the way certain processes are being conducted and that the stress caused by these processes must be reduced. Yet, our solutions and suggestions are met with a response by the bureaucracy that they are unable to do anything."
Claude Poirier, the president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, said his union has never been contacted by the minister's office on this.
"It is because the employer has refused to meet its contractual obligation that employees are extremely stressed out," he wrote in an email.