Giving workers unpaid days off 'not pleasant ... but fair,' says former Ont. premier

It's a plan that's already getting its fair share of nicknames – Wall's Weekends or perhaps Brad's Breaks: require public sector workers take one unpaid day off per month to tackle Saskatchewan's deficit.

Man., Ont., Hawaii among jurisdictions that have attempted Sask.'s unpaid days off idea

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty speaks to reporters on Feb. 15, 2017, about giving government workers unpaid days off as a way to reduce the provincial deficit. (Trent Peppler/CBC)

It's a plan that's already getting its fair share of nicknames – Wall's Weekends or perhaps Brad's Breaks: require public sector workers take unpaid days off to tackle Saskatchewan's deficit.

It's a move that has been tried in other jurisdictions, with varying results.

Manitoba, for instance, has enacted unpaid days in the past and is considering doing so again. Done right, the approach stands to offer governments some savings, said University of Manitoba professor emeritus Paul Thomas.

Fact is, said Thomas, the "cost of wages and benefits are such a huge cost of the provincial government budget. You can't use retirement and voluntary departures and holding the line on spending and achieve the savings that you're aiming [for]."

'Filmon Fridays' in Manitoba 

In the 1990s, Manitoba introduced a plan that what was later coined 'Filmon Fridays,' named after then-premier Gary Filmon. It gave public sector workers 10 unpaid days off per year in an effort to trim government spending at a time of falling revenues, big deficits and rising costs.
Gary Filmon's government introduced unpaid days off in Manitoba in the 1990s. (CBC)

It's the same problem plaguing the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments now.

But while Filmon Fridays produced "marginal success" for the Manitoba government, said Thomas, it garnered mixed reviews among workers.

"It partly depended what occupation you were in," Thomas said. "The union leadership was concerned that the introduction of these unpaid days off was done unilaterally. It was not the product of collective bargaining."

The policy was in effect for six years, starting in 1993. The first two years were legislated and the remaining four were negotiated. The final year, 1998, saw the number of days reduced to five from 10.

The Manitoba government estimated savings to be 0.38 per cent of the regular civil service payroll for each day.

"The unions characterized it as a one-way street," Thomas said.

'Rae Days' in Ontario 

The same year Manitoba introduced its unpaid days, Ontario enacted 'Rae Days.'

"A lot of people say to me it's a good idea," Bob Rae, Ontario's former premier, told CBC News.

'A lot of people say to me it's a good idea,' says Bob Rae. (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

'Rae Days' required public sector employees making more than $30,000 annually to take 12 unpaid days off per year.

Rae said the practice is widely used across the United States.

"We were never able to get the buy-in from folks that restraint was necessary," he said. "So, in the end, the government had to act. And that's always the difficult part of the equation."

Rae admitted such a policy will never be popular.

"I still believe that there's an element of fairness in it that's undeniable," Rae added. "It's not pleasant, but at least it's fair. We're not going to protect 80 per cent of the people at the expense of the 20 per cent. We're going to share it throughout. "

Hawaii saves $1B

Brooke Dobni, professor in the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan, said the state of Hawaii saved about $1 billion by mandating public workers take three days off per month unpaid.

The policy was in effect for two years and schedules were changed so services weren't reduced, he said.

Consultations key

Thomas said while Filmon's government was re-elected once more after the policy was implemented and the next government inherited somewhat better financial fortunes, Brad Wall's government in Saskatchewan can avoid a political shot in the foot if it consults properly.

"The process is part of it," he said. "If they go through the motions of having consulted somewhat and they're not just putting their thumb on it … there won't be as much of a backlash."

Still, he said it won't please everybody if implemented.

"I don't think this going to blow up in Brad Wall's face if this is part of a menu of options that he pursues," Thomas said.

With files from The Canadian Press