New Brunswick civil servants will shoulder some of the burden of reducing the provincial deficit through job cuts, changes in benefits and wage restraint measures, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs announced Tuesday during his budget speech.

About 300 public servants from across the province protested the pending changes outside the legislature.

The protesters, who were chanting and blowing horns as they listened to the speech on outdoor speakers, said they're worried about their jobs and benefits.

"I have seniority, but [for] the young worker, it's scary," said Herman Vienneau, a hospital worker from Bathurst.

About 1,500 employees are expected to leave the public service in each of the next three years due to retirement and personal reasons, the minister said.

"We will replace only those positions that are critical to the delivery of core government services, resulting in a net reduction in the size of the public service," he said.

It’s unclear which departments will be affected or how many of those positions will be deemed "critical." Each department will identify core functions and adjust priorities, Higgs said.

But pressed further, he said the goal would be to replace two out of every three positions.

Still, the reductions are expected to save more than $86 million by 2014-15, he said.

The government will make every effort to find alternative employment for displaced employees, he added.

Changes to sick leave

Civil servants will also see changes to their sick leave program, which could save "many millions of dollars," said Higgs.

A comprehensive attendance management program will carefully control and manage employee sick leave usage, he said.

Sick leave is meant to be a limited benefit where salaries are continued if an employee is unable to work due to illness, said Higgs.

"It should not be considered as an entitlement to paid time off for other reasons," he said.

"The number of sick days earned each year and the maximum number of sick leave days employees can accumulate need to become more closely aligned to the qualifying period for long term disability benefits."

The sick leave changes drew quick reaction from some protesters, such as Una Flynn, who works as a resident assistant at a nursing home.

"We’re in an industry where we’re injured constantly and those sick days, we need them. And if they take them away from us, we’re going to hurt, desperately," she said.

"We’re going to be bringing in the colds, we’re going to bring in the germs that we’re working in back into the workforce."

Flynn said she disagrees with the government making any changes to existing sick leave.

"It's my choice how I use my sick days. It's not up to them to decide for me on when I use them and how I use them. I am entitled to them," Flynn said. "We earn them."

Premier David Alward waded through the crowd before heading to the house. "It's part of the democratic process," he said.

"For me, I value that tremendously. That's why I am out here."

The government will also be changing the way workers’ compensation benefits are paid to public sector employees to ensure compliance with legislation that applies to other employees, the minister said, without elaborating.

And it will redouble efforts to manage injured workers’ claims and promote an early return to work philosophy, Higgs said.

Wage restrictions

Wages, which represent one of the government’s largest expenditures at about $3 billion annually, is another area the government plans to rein in, the minister said.

Some of the initiatives will include a two-year wage freeze for employees who have not yet participated and a freeze on upward reclassifications.

The Christmas holiday leave initiative will also be repeated. Last year, the government shut down for five days over the holidays, which Higgs said generated about $1 million in wage savings.

In addition, the government will be looking at changes to the current retirement allowance policy on a go forward basis, Higgs said.

Gord Black, the regional representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, contends the Alward government is   taking away hard-fought benefits.

"Sick days as well as retirement allowance for working your career most employers give some type of retirement allowance," he said.

"They want to eliminate that." 

Pay equity

Meanwhile, the government plans to spend about $6.4 million to reduce the wage gap between men and women in the province.

It will provide pay adjustments to several female-dominated public sector groups, including childcare workers, home support workers and workers in transition houses, said Higgs.

"This is just the beginning of our investment in pay equity to conform to the current legislative requirements, which end in the 2017-18 fiscal year."