More job security for federal workers

The federal public service announced it intends to scale back its heavy dependence on contract workers — possibly by more than 30 per cent — and give employees permanent positions.

Currently a “term employee” in the federal public service can work for five years in the same position before the employer is required to offer a permanent position.

The key recommendation of a joint union-management committee struck to review the use of term employment is that all term workers who complete two years of uninterrupted service should automatically be given permanent positions. Currently, about 15 per cent of all federal public-service employees are classified as term, slightly more than 30 per cent of those have worked in term jobs for two or more years.

Ottawa has been going through a comprehensive review of its human resource management policies and practices to create a more modern HR framework that will revitalize the public service in part by improving the attraction and retention of workers.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and other critics of the current hiring system have charged that the practice of term employment has been overused and too many people are working in insecure positions without all of the benefits granted to permanent staff.

“The number of employees hired for limited periods of time has increased steadily since the mid-’80s when thousands of permanent public-sector jobs were slashed,” said Nycole Turmel, president of PSAC.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2001, contract and term workers made up five per cent of the private-sector workforce, while in the federal public service the number was closer to 15 per cent. In the broader public sector, including hospitals, crown corporations and schools, the average was 9.9 per cent.

The committee also reported the percentage of term employees has been consistently around 15 per cent since 1998. As of last fall, out of a total workforce of about 160,000 roughly 23,000 employees were classed as term workers and of those 7,200 (more than 30 per cent) had been in their positions for more than two years.

“The government agrees in principle with the report’s key recommendation — to shorten the length of service after which employees must be appointed to indeterminate positions,” said Lucienne Robillard, President of the Treasury Board of Canada, the department that manages the personnel responsibilities of the government. It has been the policy of the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), the administrative arm of the Treasury Board, that employers can hire term workers for a set period of time where a need that exists is not expected to be permanent and ongoing. The committee concluded that, “Term employment is being used in situations where there is clearly a continuing function.”

There is an over-reliance on term workers because it’s easier to hire them, said André Carrière, the TBS co-chair of the committee. Hiring managers have been frustrated by the overly bureaucratic processes and rather than taking the time to hire someone into a permanent position they bring them on-board as term employees.

The committee recommended the move to a two-year threshold be phased in to allow organizations to prepare for the change. On the date the new policy is implemented, all those with three years of service would be converted to permanent status, and one year later the minimum requirement would become two years. The TBS will consult with other departments and bargaining agents other than PSAC to determine if that proposal is workable. It also committed to have a revised policy in place by no later than April 1, 2003.

The large number of term employees has been hurting morale because people are often worried about their terms ending and not being renewed, said Turmel.

The committee met with employees, managers and other key stakeholders. The overriding message emerging from those meetings and focus groups was that the status quo was unacceptable. “Term employees need to be dealt with in a more human way and not be played like puppets on a string,” said one member of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX).

Reducing the threshold at which term workers are converted to permanent staff requires a policy change, but Turmel said other changes to improve working conditions for term workers can happen right away without a formal policy change. For example, term workers do not receive the same amount of training, performance reviews aren’t as thorough and often non-existent. And when employees complete a work term and have to look for other work they receive little assistance from the employer.

Many employees have been laid off without ever knowing why or how they performed in their positions, she said. “As an employer you have an obligation to help people find a new job,” said Turmel.

In a letter to all deputy department heads and heads of human resources, Jim Judd, secretary of the Treasury Board said a number of the recommendations relate to actions immediately possible. “I encourage you to move to implement these immediately for all term employees, as necessary, within your environments.”

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