Ottawa

Sick leave program overhaul needed for young public servants, prof says

Carleton University business professor Ian Lee says reform to the government's sick leave system is long overdue and the country's young public servants are currently at a disadvantage.

Section Bill C-59 proposes modernizing sick leave to save about $1 billion this year

Carleton University business professor Ian Lee says reform to the government's sick leave system is long overdue and Canada's young civil servants deserve change.

Ian Lee, a professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, testified on Thursday at the committee meeting for Bill C-59. (CBC)
Lee spoke to the House of Commons Finance Committee on Thursday about Bill C-59, the government's budget implementation bill.

A section in the bill proposes modernizing sick leave to save close to a billion dollars this year.

Lee made it clear he does not belong to any political party. However, he did take a run to become a Member of Parliament for the Progressive Conservative party in 1993.

He also said as a faculty member at Carleton, he is part of a union himself. 

But Lee strongly disagrees with public service unions when it comes to the current short-term sick leave system and the banking of sick days.

"I think it's a very unfair system. It benefits older people … It harms and discriminates against young people who haven't built up a large bank," said Lee.

In the event of a serious illness, employees who have banked sick leave can use those days as a bridge to long-term disability. New and young workers often don't have enough banked days.

Lee says most provincial governments and private sector workplaces eliminated the banking of sick days years ago and he says previous federal governments and ministers are to blame for not updating the system decades ago.

There is something that both Lee and the unions do agree on: the seven day, unpaid waiting period for the short term disability benefits to kick in should be scrapped from the proposed plan.

Under the proposed system, an employee could use sick leave, vacation credits or personal days during the wait. But unions worry this could mean some workers will be on unpaid leave.

Accounting not 'compelling argument' for reform

At Thursday's committee meeting, Liberal MP Scott Brison asked Lee if the government's proposal of close to a billion dollars in savings, which is largely an accounting manoeuvre, is legitimate.

Lee said he wouldn't use accounting as a justification for the bill because he sees the real savings in productivity.

"In terms of legitimacy of the accounting, it's legitimate, I just don't think it's a compelling argument," said Lee.

Robyn Benson, head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, has stalled negotiations with the Treasury Board over sick leave reform. (CBC)
Public service union leaders insist the proposed, legislative changes to sick leave are illegal and unconstitutional and that's what they told committee members.

Conservative MP Andrew Saxton asked Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, about whether she thought the system could use modernizing.

She did not answer the question, but rather criticized the sick leave reform process.

"If the government has the good will to bargain it and not impose it through a hammer legislation that's unconstitutional," replied Tremblay, "The end result has already been predetermined by booking this $900 million savings."​

Leaders of the other two major public service unions were also grilled by MPs on Thursday at the committee. The budget bill is set to pass with a majority Conservative government.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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