Mandatory unpaid days off 'more palatable' than layoffs for public employees, says Sask. finance minister

The Saskatchewan government is considering imposing mandatory unpaid leave on public sector workers as a way of fighting the province's $1.2-billion deficit.

'I don't know how as an employer ... you can hate your own workers that much': union says of proposal

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty speaks to reporters on Wednesday about a government proposal to make public sector workers take unpaid days off as a way to save wage costs and reduce the provincial deficit. (Trent Peppler/CBC)

The Saskatchewan government is considering mandatory unpaid leave for public sector employees as a cost-saving measure amid a $1.2-billion deficit.

We've heard back directly from public servants.- Kevin Doherty, Saskatchewan finance minister

A spokesperson said government employees could be required to take one unpaid day off a month or every other month. 

Finance Minister Kevin Doherty said each unpaid day would save roughly $11 million.

"What I'm concerned about ... is managing the economy — the downturn with the economy right now," he said.

Doherty reiterated the stance that everything is on the table when considering how to tackle the provincial deficit, whether it be wage rollbacks, layoffs or tax increases. 

He said the government has reached out to union leaders and public sector employers, saying the province wants to freeze compensation for public employees for the next couple years and "certainly over the next year, for sure."

"I've had people say to me that 'If it's a matter of rolling back my wage rather than losing my job or giving us an unpaid day off ... that's a much more palatable option to me, as a public servant,'" Doherty said. "So, we've heard back directly from public servants."

Doherty said the goal would be to hold compensation costs steady or reduce them if possible.

The austerity measures would be maintained over the long term, not just for the upcoming year, he said.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has been considering something similar, as the province is also experiencing a significant deficit. 

Government showing 'disrespect,' says union

The thought of mandatory unpaid days off isn't sitting well with the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union.

"I don't know how as an employer, and as a government, how you can hate your own workers that much that you would just put it out there and constantly float these things out there in the media rather than bring it though the proper channels," SGEU president Bob Bymoen told CBC News.

Bob Bymoen, president of SGEU, the union that represents government workers, says making workers take unpaid days off would hurt the economy because they would be spending less. (CBC)

​Bymoen said the union learned of the idea through the media Wednesday morning and said it could be harmful to the economy.

"All these government employees will be looking at thinking, 'Well, maybe I can't afford that holiday. Maybe I don't want to upgrade my car or rebuild my fence,'" he said. "Their disrespect for the collective bargaining process and their employees is just profound."

I have no reason to believe that the government, even if they do this, won't lay people off anyhow.- Bob Bymoen, SGEU president

Bymoen said a wage freeze and mandatory days off could hurt local economies as they could lead to workers having to choose between paying their utilities and taxes or spending money on recreation and entertainment.

"They're also wondering what's next," he said. "I have no reason to believe that the government, even if they do this, won't lay people off anyhow."

Bymoen said it's unfair for the government to put the burden of reducing the province's deficit on its workers.

"None of these workers caused the deficit," he said. 

With files from CBC's Riley Laychuk and The Canadian Press