Sunday, 30 September 2012

Is the Workforce Adjustment Agreement approach harmful?

Two weeks ago saw reports (see here and here) of the tragedy of a federal civil servant committing suicide after both he and his wife received “affected” letters.

For those of us who live and work in Ottawa the question of whether or not someone is “affected” or “safe” has been common as of late. For those outside this city, or for those fortunate enough to have avoided the situation, the question refers to the process by which the federal civil service is thinning its numbers.

Pursuant to the Workforce Adjustment Agreement between the Treasury Board Secretariat and Canada’s federal civil service unions, employees caught up in the “Deficit Reduction Action Plan” or DRAP, have been receiving notifications over the past several months informing them that their position, but not necessarily themselves, has been “affected.”

What does notice that one’s position has been “affected” mean?

The answer is less clear than anyone would want. In short, it would appear that no one really knows, and it varies depending upon the position held and the department or agency for whom the employee works. Living in Ottawa I have been exposed to several conversations about this entire process and if one thing is consistent it is that few totally understand what is going on.

This confusion has demonstrably not been without consequence. As the Ottawa Citizen reported last week

The public service has a reputation as one of the most stressed-out workforces in the country. The government’s disability claims have doubled since 1999 and half are for mental health claims. So far this year, claims are nearly 13 per cent higher and it’s expected mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, are driving the increase.

Many have been quick to criticize not only the approach taken by Treasury Board, but the unions’ response to it. Bill Wilkerson, co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, was quoted as arguing that:

All these affected letters and you may lose your job or may not and then having to compete for your job in six months, it is the crudest managerial tool I have ever heard of and beyond my comprehension. [Wilkerson added,] I blame the union as much as the government. They have confused benefits and rights with common sense and decency and every rule ties a rope around people’s ability to function in a very real way.

If it is agreed that the current approach is unworkable, and indeed hazardous to federal civil servants’ health, then two questions are raised: what can be done, and what should be done?

A more cynical question may be: will anything be done?


  1. As an aside, I will be speaking on essentially this issue at an Ottawa conference November 27 and 28. Registration and further information is here:

  2. The argument by Wilkerson that a union has equal responsibility to an employee's reaction to an employer action is hogwash. This is the typical flip-flop anti-union rhetoric that unions are either powerless/obsolete, too powerful, or in this case, not responsible enough.

    That aside, living in Ottawa with many family and friends in the PS, hearing about the processes involved during WFA makes question what exactly went on in the background for such a huge undertaking.

    When one friend told me of what the process was, all I could think was "clearly setup to allow for managerial bias and discrimination with no consistency across sectors."

    I agree that the parties should have been more proactive to prevent excessive alarm amongst workers and establish a respectful process.

    As to what should have been done: Will either party be open and truthful as to how this all unfolded?