Proudly serving Canadians? Public servant employee pride is taking a beating

I wonder how many government employees are finding it hard to relate to the Treasury Board of Canada’s National Public Service Week slogan: “Proudly Serving Canadians”?

It isn’t because they aren’t serving Canadians. It isn’t because they don’t care.  It isn’t because they aren’t committed to their jobs.  And it certainly isn’t because they aren’t doing their jobs well…

The way I see it is that most employees show up for work on time every day and work 7.5 hours (or more) and are involved in their communities after work and on weekends.    They do this with modesty and humility and are grateful for the opportunities to contribute.  They maintain high standards in their work and display professionalism every day under sometimes dangerous and at times contentious circumstances.  Federal government workers should be feeling a great sense of pride.

Public Servants however have become victims of unrelenting and unfounded criticisms in the media and contempt from the general public.  There is a negative picture that is being painted of lazy, over-privileged and low-performing government workers who are milking this system – sadly, this image is being perpetuated in many ways by the very employer who should be supporting and motivating its workforce. It is disheartening and as the President of Local 70713, I’m seeing first-hand the terrible toll it is taking on the self-esteem and pride of our members, and the negative effects on the morale of these hardworking and dedicated employees.

Absenteeism and sick leave

This year on the first day of National Public Service Week the Employer chose to announce plans to deal with the problem of absenteeism, sick leave, and performance of its workforce.  Aside from it being an insensitive choice in timing for this announcement, the issue that many of us are having is how Federal government employees are being characterized as somehow abusing their sick leave and taking advantage of the ‘system’ – allegations that are unsubstantiated and supported by misleading statistics. Though our union leaders continue to point to information that discounts these claims, the facts continue to be overlooked and not recognized.

SICK LEAVE: GAP BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SECTORS INSIGNIFICANT

The claim that public servants take too many sick days compared to the private sector. is false, and now Statistics Canada confirms PSAC’s position. Researchers at Statistics Canada recently compared absenteeism in the private and public sectors and found that when adjusted for age, gender and unionization, the gap in public versus private sector absenteeism is virtually eliminated. Indeed, as I often say, public service sick leave is managed sick leave.

We are seeing diversionary tactics that take our attention away from scandals and the real issues at hand – laying the blame where it doesn’t belong, directly on the shoulders of hard working employees.

Here are some important facts I would like to point out in our collective defense:

1) Over the past 10 years our members have not seen any significant pay increases beyond the cost of living.

2) Public servants don’t have unlimited sick leave. The leave that is available to employees within our collective agreements has been negotiated in good faith, following the terms and conditions of collective bargaining.  Both employees and the Employer agreed to the legal terms and conditions of our contracts.  It just doesn’t make sense that employees are being blamed, labeled, and criticized for accessing the sick leave benefits that they are legally entitled to and when they require them.

3) Medical leave is limited to the balance in the leave bank (except in extraordinary circumstances and is subject to management discretion).  The Employer has the right and an obligation to monitor sick leave usage and to require a medical certificate if it is deemed necessary.

4) Managers are responsible for overseeing employee leave banks – and if these leave banks become depleted or are not properly managed, ultimately it is the Manager who is accountable and not the employee.

5) The idea that the majority of government workers ‘cash out’ their sick leave benefits before they retire is a falsehood.  The truth is that most public servants leave or retire from the workplace with months of sick leave banked and they are never compensated for it.  They are just grateful that they didn’t need to use it.  I wonder why we are not hearing about those statistics.

Plans to “Modernize” disability management in the Public Service

It is important for our members to be aware of what is being proposed in terms of changes to public service sick leave and short-term disability.  Though there may be some parts of the current leave system that could be improved upon, handing this responsibility over to an insurance company is not the answer.  It is my opinion that effective training for managers is the answer and at much less cost to taxpayers.

Would the proposed changes offer cost savings for tax payers? If you asked me, I’d say that anytime you hand over a situation to a “for-profit” organization, it is going to cost money.

No one will deny that insurance companies are profit driven and I fear that this shift would translate to further hardships for our most vulnerable members. It may be difficult for sick employees to navigate their way through the claim process, with no guarantee that their claims will even be approved. I am particularly worried that members suffering from early and undiagnosed symptoms of mental illness will fall through the cracks.

There is a growing awareness that the symptoms of mental illness (including complicated grief) can lead to chronic absenteeism. Often times, these symptoms are treated with escalating disciplinary measures when, in reality, the employees need the help of their employer to deal with the underlying causes of their absences.  I fear that under the new system, claims that cannot reference a specific diagnosed illness – stress or trauma related symptoms – will be denied because symptoms are not covered in the policy.  Not every private company utilizes an insurance company to deal with temporary medical or personal situations.  Managers can handle these issues with proper training and with this approach employees will return to work quicker and healthier and grateful for the assistance and empathy.  These situations are better managed by the Employee, the family doctor and the manager and with much less expense – this is what I believe.

I believe that the current system can work – the key is to ensure the proper training for managers to safely engage their employee in a conversation about their absenteeism and work with them on an action plan that sees them through the difficult period.  The manager needs to know what options are available to both of them to overcome the obstacles during the transition period.

If the Employer truly wants to invest in and support its workers, the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented. By changing it, they will only make millions for a corporation that is motivated by profits, and cares less about people.

Some final thoughts…

What is the toll that is being taken by Public Servants in the way they are being portrayed and the Employer’s new and unnecessary rules to deal with non-existent problems or problems that could be resolved with open dialogue and application of existing policies and guidelines?  I have never heard of any employer of choice saying that their employees misuse their leave and are poor performers to the point where they need to be legislated into better work habits and productivity.  That kind of an approach to management would diminish morale to the point where employees would be ashamed to talk about their jobs (and definitely not with pride).

All of the negativity that is being directed to our public servants is creating a mental health situation of its own.  There is a price that is being paid as we continue to be bombarded by this negativity. It is undeserved, and it isn’t just.  We need to stand up in support of our Public Service workers. It is time to change the ‘message’ and restore the self-esteem and pride of Public Servants in Canada.

Related Links

A recently retired public servant speaks out: “I’m proud of my public service career” by Lloyd Kerry, Ottawa Citizen, October 22, 2013

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