More than a quarter of federal public servants granted special paid leave during pandemic

More than a quarter of all federal public servants were granted paid time off work during the first eleven weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between March 15 and May 31, a total of 76,804 employees took the special leave with pay, at an estimated cost of $439 million. 

Price tag for '699' furlough during first months of COVID nearly $440 million

Ottawa's Tunney's Pasture federal government complex in April 2020. (Émilien Juteau/Radio-Canada)

More than a quarter of all federal public servants were granted paid time off work during the first 11 weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, at an estimated cost of $439 million. 

The "other leave with pay" provision, also known by its pay code 699, is approved at the discretion of management when employees are unable to report to work for reasons beyond their control. It is separate from vacation or sick pay.

Between March 15 and May 31 of this year, a total of 76,804 employees took this leave, according to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. 

That's 27 per cent of all federal public workers. 

"It's a big number," said Aaron Wudrick, the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"And that's only for the first two and half months of the pandemic, so I imagine the actual tab by this point is considerably higher."

While Wudrick acknowledges the pandemic has been an exceptional occurrence, in the future he would like to see federal employees granted reduced pay, leave for a fixed time period, or laid off so they qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

"It's not about being vindictive, it's more a question of is it reasonable to expect people in the private sector to take layoffs, major pay cuts, hours reductions — and yet people in government are entitled to 100 per cent of their pay indefinitely?" he said. 

Parents using 699 leave most, says union

In a statement, the Treasury Board said "some public servants experienced challenges in being able to work" as offices closed during the pandemic, including because they were at risk of getting sick, didn't have childcare, or couldn't access their IT network.

"The largest use of 699 leave basically has been from employees who are parents," said Chris Aylward, the national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. 

"The shutdown of school and daycare left thousands of parents with full-time caretaking duties that made their work ... impossible to perform," he said. 

The 26-storey R. H. Coats Building at Ottawa's Tunney's Pasture federal government complex in April 2020. (Émilien Juteau/Radio-Canada)

Aylward added that some employees who were unable to perform their regular duties worked in the evening, or in different roles, so they have been continuing to work part-time while on 699 leave. 

"As much as they may be on this leave, they are still being somewhat productive," he said. "They may be beginning work at five, six o'clock at night and putting in three or four hours."

Government sees use of 699 'steadily decline'

The Treasury Board said the exceptional leave provision has existed since the 1960s and has been used in the past when federal employees have experienced flooding, ice storms or "unusual circumstances like being stranded abroad due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland."

The data covers 62 government departments, representing 70 per cent of the public service.

The government is continuing "to see this leave steadily decline as more childcare services become available," the statement read.

Data for the month of June is expected to be available by the end of July. 

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