Public service cuts

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint questions the accuracy of a CBC.ca report speculating about public service cuts that were due shortly in the federal budget. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On March 12, 2012, CBC.ca carried a report by Ottawa correspondent Greg Weston about speculation involving public service cuts in the imminent federal budget.

Specifically, the report outlined “hefty golden handshakes” Weston wrote would be offered to some departing workers. He asserted that the financial packages for some departing public sector workers would be comparably greater than what would be typically available in the private sector.

He did not identify the source of his information, but said CBC News had learned of details of “severance” packages for workers.

Among other things, he said those:

  • With only one year of service would be entitled to severance of nearly six months in pay and $11,000 to return to school.
  • With 15 years of service and an annual salary of $70,000 would be entitled to a severance cheque equal to 66 weeks of salary or almost $90,000.
  • With 29 years of service would be entitled to a maximum severance of 82 weeks of pay.
  • Older than 55 would be able to take early retirement without pension penalties.

The federal initiative to cut 30,000 jobs would cost $2 billion, he wrote.

He added: “Public servants who are declared surplus but who decide not to take the money and run will have a year to look for another position in government. Those accepting lower-paying jobs will continue to be paid their original higher salary.”

A representative of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation criticized the measures, while a senior public servant managing the cuts defended the need for such a program to help workers adjust. Weston noted that the federal auditor general had found serious flaws in the last such adjustment program.

The complainant, Paul Morris, wrote March 13 to say the report was inaccurate. Morris, a federal public servant involved in human resources, said he had professional knowledge of federal workplace adjustment programs and collective agreements.

Morris spelled out some existing policies and practices and said the report had oversimplified and distorted workforce programs. He said that “irresponsible reporting is trying to whip up readers into a frenzy.”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back May 15.

Enkin said Weston had arrived at his information through basic calculation of factors under existing policies that include severance provisions and a so-called Transition Support Measure (TSM).

“The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) provides for two weeks' severance pay for the first year of employment and one week for each additional year,” Enkin wrote. “So, to use one of the examples in the story, an employee with 15 years' service would be entitled to 16 weeks through the CBA plus 50 weeks mandated by the TSM for a total of 66 weeks' severance pay.”

She said: “This may not apply to all individual employees, but it does apply to the majority of employees declared surplus who are governed by the collective agreements and the workforce adjustment agreement.”

Morris wrote again May 15 and asked for a review of his concerns. In his correspondence he asserted that the transitional assistance was not severance and had to be returned if someone found a new job quickly.

He said the report exaggerated the accessibility of assistance — specifically, that not everyone was eligible for certain measures.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices encourage truth-seeking and accuracy: “We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.”

The policy encourages an even-handed, respectful consideration of divergent views. It adds: “We do not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary nor to follow up a story when a situation changes significantly.”

Conclusion

The report accurately reflects the mix of existing support programs for public servants whose positions are deemed surplus. The terms and conditions of these programs are the product of collective agreements. The CBC.ca story provided an online link to the Treasury Board Work Force Adjustment Directive.

The basic practice is to provide two weeks of severance for the first year of service and one week of severance for each additional year of service. In addition there is a transitional program that provides a sliding scale of support while someone is looking for work. That support grows according to years of service, peaks at 52 weeks of support for workers with between 16 and 29 years of service, then declines for those of longer terms. Thus, an employee with 15 years of service would be entitled to 30 weeks of severance and an additional 52 weeks of transitional support — the 82-week support mentioned in the article.

While I appreciate the complainant's view that the two forms of support have distinct labels — and that in certain circumstances part of the transitional support would be recouped if a surplus employee found work — I concluded it was reasonable that they were both termed “severance” and that the report outlined the eligible amount and did not qualify that some could be recouped in certain circumstances.

I note that the report speculated that as many as 30,000 jobs might be cut, but the eventual number in the budget was 19,200 positions. In its reporting on the budget, CBC noted the cut was not as severe as public service reductions in the 1990s. This gap between the speculated and the actual total in this budget was reported elsewhere on CBC, but would have been well placed in the online story.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman