Health & Medical

Public Service Alliance of Canada scores ‘major victory’ on pandemic-related paid leave

Public Service Alliance of Canada scores 'major victory' on pandemic-related paid leave thumbnail

An adjudicator found civil servants should not have to use family leave, for instance, to cover the problems created by schools or daycares being closed due to COVID-19.

Publishing date:

Apr 18, 2022  •  1 hour ago  •  3 minute read  •  15 Comments

File: Public Service Alliance of Canada
File: Public Service Alliance of Canada Photo by Errol McGihon /Postmedia

The Public Service Alliance of Canada says it has scored “a major victory” for federal civil servants who had to use sick leave, family leave or vacation credits to manage life during the pandemic.

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Government figures show about 135,000 federal civil servants were granted paid leave during the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic as they dealt with closed workplaces, COVID-19 quarantines and children displaced from schools and daycare centres.

Under Treasury Board guidance, some workers were made to use accumulated leave credits before they could apply for discretionary paid leave, known as “699 leave.”

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the country’s largest public service union, grieved that guidance.

Federal contracts provide for 699 leave, which was designed to be used when employees cannot come to work through no fault of their own.

Lawyers for the federal government argued 699 leave was intended for short-term situations, such as snowstorms, and that eligibility should be decided on a case-by-case basis. As a “residual” leave provision, they said, it should only be used once other applicable leaves have been exhausted.

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In a recent decision, the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board ruled the government cannot force civil servants to use other forms of leave before applying for 699 leave.

Board adjudicator Marie-Claire Perrault said family leave, sick leave and vacation leave all have specific definitions in collective agreements, and are not meant to be used as a bucket of leave time to draw upon when employees are willing but unable to go to work.

“I find that requiring the manager and employee to consider other paid leave is a violation of the collective agreement,” Perrault concluded. “The rights and entitlements negotiated in the collective agreement exist as separate entitlements; they are not meant to be melded.”

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Perrault said civil servants should not have to use family leave, for instance, to cover the problems created by schools or daycares being closed due to COVID-19.

“It is unreasonable to use leave that is meant for another purpose — short-term events — for a reality that may be ongoing,” Perrault said.

In a news release, PSAC hailed the decision as “a major victory for federal public service workers hardest hit by the pandemic.”

It said the decision means government workers who were forced to use sick leave, family leave or vacation credits before taking a 699 leave in the pandemic will be able to have those credits restored.

The restrictions the government imposed on the use of 699 leave disproportionately affected marginalized groups in the pandemic, PSAC said, including women, Black, Indigenous, racialized and disabled employees.

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Perrault said the government’s policy on paid leaves was not discriminatory, and that it was entitled to deny paid leave to parents who decided against sending their children to schools or daycares that remained open during the pandemic.

The adjudicator also refused to make an order granting 699 leave to all civil servants who applied for it.

“The employer is entitled to explore and determine whether remote and flexible arrangements are possible and the extent to which an employee cannot come to work because of medical reasons…,” Perrault said.

Perrault said the federal government “acted as best it could” during the unprecedented pandemic. Federal employees were not laid off or deprived of their incomes, she noted.

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“From one day to the next, in March 2020,” she said, “it (the Treasury Board) had to rethink how its employees would continue fulfilling their duties outside their workplaces. The transition was not easy, but it was largely successful.”

According to government figures, approximately 41 per cent of civil servants received paid leave during the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic. Those 135,000 employees received an average of 166 hours of paid leave time – about one month each.

The amount of leave time peaked in April 2020 and has steadily declined ever since.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) estimated the cost of the government’s paid leave policy at $1.27 billion between March 2020 and July 2021.

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The PBO reported that the organizations with the most intensive use of paid leave included the Office of the Governor General’s Secretary (an average of 1,016 hours per employee), Statistical Survey Operations (261 hours), the Parole Board of Canada (249 hours), the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (228 hours) and National Defence (224 hours).

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