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Use of special paid leave by public servants 'likely underreported', says PBO

The use of special paid leave by federal public servants is "likely underreported" and the estimated $623-million cost of lost productivity is "probably tip of the iceberg," according to Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux.

Estimated $623M cost in lost productivity 'probably the tip of the iceberg', says Yves Giroux

Yves Giroux, parliamentary budget officer, says the lack of solid information about how many employees were granted special leave with pay may make post-pandemic staffing decisions “more difficult to make.” 0:57

The use of special paid leave by federal public servants is "likely underreported," according to a report published Friday by the Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux.

In fact, Giroux told CBC that even his own office's estimates that federal public servants' absence during the first months of COVID-19 cost $623 million in lost productivity is "the absolute minimum."

Public servants have access to "other leave with pay" — also known by its pay code 699 — which 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.

Giroux said that the potential lack of accurate data about the use of 699 leave could leave deputy ministers not knowing what their departments were able to achieve with a reduced workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Treasury Board figures show that across the entire federal public service, the number of employees claiming 699 leave is more than 76,000, or a quarter of all government employees. 

The price tag for that lost output over the first eleven weeks of the pandemic is $439 million.

But, Giroux said, "We know for sure that is a significant underestimation of the real lost productivity from federal public servants."

Employees from Canada Revenue Building accounted for 70 per cent of the reported usage of a special paid leave during the first months of the pandemic. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) found that more than 40,000 employees of Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) used the pay code between March 15 and May 31, accounting for 70 per cent of reported 699 use — the largest by far of any department.

But because CRA has a "culture of thoroughly completing timesheets," the PBO believes that the revenue agency is showing higher usage of the special leave because they're better at reporting it, not because they took more leave than other departments. 

Giroux said the other two departments with the highest 699 usage, Correctional Services Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency, also have strong internal cultures of keeping track of employees' working hours.

"But if you're getting paid anyway, most departments don't care that much to record leave as 699," said Giroux.

Giroux points out that while recording the highest use of 699 leave, the CRA continued processing tax returns and implemented the biggest government assistance program in a generation — the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit.  

"If they are the most intensive users of 699 while they were doing all that," Giroux said he can't understand how departments that virtually shut down didn't show higher usage of the special leave.

The union disagrees with Giroux's findings. 

"I think that's a stretch," said Debi Daviau, president of Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC). "I don't believe necessarily that because CRA has a culture of detailed reporting that everyone else is not reporting."

Daviau doesn't believe that it's possible for "people to skirt the system" on 699 leave.

"There would be deliverables, and if those deliverables couldn't be met, then you'd have to be able to demonstrate that it's because of people on 699."

Price tag could be $623 million — or more

The PBO estimates that the total cost of public servants' use of 699 leave could be higher than figures provided by the Treasury Board. 

From mid-March until the end of May, $439 million was paid out under the pay code, representing 1 per cent of the total personnel expenditure for 2018-2019.

But only 62 out of 88 departments provided information to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. 

The report stated that if "take-up of 699 leave was similar in the 26 missing organizations, we can extrapolate that the estimated cost ... has reached $623 million for all federal public service."

Adding in the assumed underreporting across departments, Giroux said even that estimate is "probably the tip of the iceberg".

"I think it is a lot of money for such a short period of time," Giroux said. "Considering that it is for sure an underestimate of the real cost."

Debi Daviau is the national president of PIPSC. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

PIPSC said the pay code has most often been used during the pandemic when employees have not had access to the technology needed to do their work.

"It doesn't seem like an over-use of a code that was specifically negotiated for unforeseen circumstances such as COVID-19," Daviau said.

Parents have also used the special leave and Daviau argues use of 699 has helped support women in unprecedented times. 

"That is creating a much stronger foundation economy and even things like protecting or reducing the ever growing gap of women in the labour market," she said. 

Use of special leave decreasing

The PBO says whether or not government departments used the pay code 699 would not have changed whether employees were paid during the pandemic.

But accurate logging would help managers make decisions in the future. 

"We don't have as good information as we should have," Giroux said.

"There'll be a time where we are out of the pandemic and managers and deputy ministers in the public service will have to take a very hard solid look at what their departments were able to achieve with a reduced workforce and they'll have to ask themselves, 'Are all of these employees necessary for delivering on my mandate?'"

Use of the 699 leave peaked during the third week of the pandemic, when 1.47 million hours of 699 leave were claimed across all federal public service departments that reported to the PBO. It's been decreasing ever since; in the last week of May that number had dropped 62 per cent to 557,000 hours. 

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