More than 5,500 federal service employees were notified Wednesday that their jobs are on the line, while unions are accusing the government of making the wrong choices and rushing through the cuts.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada said that it was advised that 5,561 of its members in 23 government departments received notices saying they could lose their jobs.

The employees were notified that they are "affected" but layoffs are not guaranteed for all of them, as some may be moved to other departments where there are vacancies.

More than 2,000 of the affected jobs are located in the Ottawa region; 775 are in the Prairies; 236 in the Atlantic region and in Quebec; 222 in British Columbia; and 11 in the North.

Some of the departments with a high number of PSAC members who were notified include:

  • Canada Border Services Agency: 1,137 
  • Health Canada: 715
  • Agriculture Canada: 689
  • Public Health Agency of Canada: 483 
  • Canadian International Development Agency: 534
  • Citizenship and Immigration: 339
  • Canadian Heritage: 258
  • Veterans Affairs: 261
  • Environment: 137

"Never in the PSAC history have we seen so many notices issued so quickly after the release of a federal budget," John Gordon, PSAC president, said at a news conference. "The government is rushing these cuts through without telling Canadians what they will mean for public services."

'Never in the PSAC history have we seen so many notices issued so quickly after the release of a federal budget. The government is rushing these cuts through without telling Canadians what they will mean for public services.'

—John Gordon, PSAC president

Gordon said the unions don't know yet what the potential cuts will mean to services but he has no doubt front-line services to Canadians will be affected.

The union does know that cuts to Veterans Affairs, for example, are in the client services area, and Gordon said those workers play a "critical role" in helping veterans obtain benefits and services.

Seventy-five client service agents will be gone by the fall, according to the union.

Gordon said that even though not all 5,561 of PSAC's members may be laid off, just being notified that they could lose their job will cause workers to spend less and therefore contribute less to the economy.

"The government is downplaying the number of jobs that are going to be lost and the impact that the budget will have on the economy," he said.

He said the morale is already low in the public service as a result of the cuts.

Government defends cuts

But Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who led the operating review over the last year that resulted in the cuts contained in the March 29 budget, defended the government's measures.

Canada's public servants: by the numbers 

  • Federal public service: 282,352
  • Federal government: 425,371 — includes the federal public service, RCMP regular and civilian members, Canadian Forces members and reservists, non-commercial Crown corporations, and other organizations (such as independent boards and commissions. 
  • Federal public sector: 526,699— includes the federal government and federal business enterprises (i.e., Crown corporations engaged in commercial operations).

Source: Treasury Board of Canada  

"We do try to be fair," Clement said Wednesday. "We understand this is a difficult process for some people who are losing their employment, and at the end of the day it is still the right thing to do. But we have to be fair about it, and we certainly will adhere to the rules that are in place.

"We have a responsibility to spend within our means."

Clement's director of communications, Jenn Gearey, wrote in an email that the unions appear opposed to "common sense changes," and that contrary to their claims that they weren't consulted, they were asked for input.

"As we have conveyed repeatedly, we sought input from unions when we embarked on our savings exercise but none responded," she said.  

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union that represents 60,000 professionals, also released some new numbers Wednesday.

It said that 1,500 of its members are receiving notices this week from their departments that their jobs are being affected. About 2,000 PIPSC members in total have now been given notices since the March 29 budget, according to a news release from the union.

The federal government is aiming to eliminate 19,200 federal public service positions across the country, saving $5.2 billion annually, and employees are in the midst of learning whose jobs may be targeted. Once someone receives a notice that their job is affected, a process kicks in that could see the person moved to another a position within the department or to a different department within the government. Not everyone who receives a notice will lose employment.

PIPSC members include biologists, chemists, veterinarians, medical doctors, technology specialists, researchers, scientists and engineers. The union says they are key to protecting the safety and well-being of Canadians through their work in food and product testing and in environmental monitoring.

"With this second round of cuts, it's clear where the government's priorities lie — more industry self-regulation, fewer checks and balances to protect our food and our environment, and less science in the public interest," said PIPSC president Gary Corbett.

The 1,500 PIPSC positions are within the following departments:

  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency: 344
  • Health Canada: 328
  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada: 153
  • Environment Canada: 137
  • Public Health Agency: 75
  • Industry Canada: 219
  • Natural Resources Canada: 156
  • Canadian Space Agency: 23
  • Citizenship and Immigration Canada: 40
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade: 53

These positions are only the ones held by members of the PIPSC union. Other employees in those departments may also have their jobs affected but belong to different unions.

For example, a total of 840 jobs at Health Canada are going to be cut and workers there learned more details Wednesday of where the cuts lie. Thirty per cent of jobs in the department's policy branch, for example, are being declared surplus, affecting 127 employees.

Those employees received notification letters Wednesday afternoon.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was asked about the cuts in her department, including those to the First Nations and Inuit health branch, at an event in Toronto where she announced cancer research funding.

"We are making some reductions in the health portfolio to ensure we are using Canadian taxpayers' dollars wisely," she said, "And again, my top priority is to ensure front-line health services [are] protected." 

Some employees whose branches or directorates within their government department are being reduced in size will end up competing with co-workers to hold on to their jobs.

What is called the selection for retention process will involve employees submitting a "statement of merit" that will explain why they shouldn't lose their job. Then it will be up to managers to decide who stays and who goes.

Food inspectors expected to be cut

The union representing federal food inspectors says up to 100 jobs may be lost at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency because of the federal budget cuts and that the reductions will have a direct impact on Canadians' food safety.

The exact number of food inspectors who will receive notices isn't yet known, but the union says there is already a shortage.

"This decision will make the inspector shortage worse, not better. And because the government has failed to consult its own inspectors, they are cutting food safety blindly with little understanding of the consequences," Bob Kingston, president of the agriculture union within the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said in a news release Wednesday. PSAC is the largest federal public sector union.

In a statement Wednesday, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the CFIA "will not make any changes that would in any way place the health and safety of Canadians at risk."

Ritz said the government has already increased funding for enhanced food safety by $151 million in the past two budgets.  

"Ensuring safe food for Canadian families is CFIA's priority and these changes underscore that commitment," the minister said.

But Kingston disagrees, saying the Ottawa employees have a "direct impact" on the safety of food bought by Canadians. Some of them, for example, are responsible for pre-approving the labels on meat products to ensure they aren't fraudulent, he said.

"The federal government is turning its back on consumers with these cuts, taking food safety professionals out of the field.  With no cop in the rearview mirror, food companies will have greater latitude to play fast and loose with our safety," Kingston said.

The federal government hired 70 new inspectors in the wake of the listeriosis outbreak at a Maple Leaf meat plant in 2008 that was linked to at least 20 deaths.

The NDP criticized the government for the cuts to CFIA.

'These cuts put Canadians' lives at risk. We could have another listeriosis crisis on our hands. People could get sick, or worse, they could lose their lives.'—NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen

"These cuts are just another scary reminder that Conservatives care more about funding their backwards priorities rather than protecting Canadians' safety and trust in the food industry," said Malcolm Allen, the party's agriculture critic.

"These cuts put Canadians' lives at risk. We could have another listeriosis crisis on our hands. People could get sick, or worse, they could lose their lives," he said.

Several federal departments were already under the axe before the March 29 budget of strategic reviews that have been taking place since 2007 and those job losses are still playing out now, making it difficult to sort out which cuts were happening already and which ones are new as of this spring because of the budget.