The fine line civil servants walk when protesting the provincial budget

As people march in budget protests across the province Friday, they're publicly expressing their anger against the province. But can civil servants take part?
Civil servants, seen here at an anti-budget rally April 22, can protest if they follow certain guidelines. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

As numerous protests against Budget 2016 get underway across the province Friday, civil servants may be wondering if they're able to join the masses to express their discontent -— when who they're angry with is their own employer.

The answer is wrapped in a tangle of employee policies and government legislation, with potentially dire consequences for the working future of a civil servant.

Despite that, public sector workers do have some leeway, according to the head of the province's largest union.

"They can certainly participate in protests," said Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE).

But Earle adds a few significant caveats to that.

Public sector workers face a maze of policies and rules when it comes to expressing how they feel about the provincial budget. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"They have to be careful in what they say, or if they say anything," he said.

And if that protest happens while you're on the government clock, you'll have to stay away.

"Not during working hours," said Earle.

"But what somebody does on their own lunch break, or what they do after hours or on the weekend, that's their own personal time."

Even then, civil servants might want to exercise an extra degree of caution.

Off-duty conduct rules apply

Under the province's discipline policy, civil servants can be reprimanded for off-duty conduct if it "detrimentally affects the reputation of the employer" or "erodes the employer's trust in the employee to the point that the employment relationship is irreparably damaged."

Discipline is progressive, with the policy saying there are verbal and written reprimands before suspension and termination are considered.

NAPE president Jerry Earle says it's wise to leave the public speaking to union officials who aren't government employees, such as himself. (CBC)

Unlike the federal government, which outlines its expectations for civil servants in one values and ethics code, public sector workers in Newfoundland and Labrador have to sift through a series of policies and legislation to understand what they can and can't do.

There is conflict of interest legislation, which says workers shouldn't engage in public activity that interferes with a worker's duties, along with an oath of office, which limits what confidential information workers can voice.

That has led to confusion in the past, most recently earlier in April when a memo sent to College of the North Atlantic faculty and staff violated their employee rights, by erroneously stating they could not attend a protest.

NAPE employs two full-time lawyers, who Earle said have interpreted these policies to come up with recommendations to the union and its members.

But those are interpretations, and Earle cautions against individuals being too outspoken.

"You can't attack your employer. Leave that to the likes of myself," he said.

Posters for protests such as this one are being widely circulated on social media, in advance of Friday's events. (Twitter)

How to express yourself

Earle said there are no-risk ways for civil servants to make themselves heard.

"We elect the MHAs so we certainly got a right to email, call our MHAs. [Those are] ways we can do it one-on-one. We can ask to meet with our MHAs." he said.

Earle said there's also nothing to stop workers from going to their management and vocalizing their frustrations.

He hears from many union members who have a lot to say, but bite their tongue.

"I've had people come to me, just out of fear, and talk about, 'I'd like to be able to say something.' And obviously with policy and that, they can't. We've heard from hundreds on that."

About the Author

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.