Public service workers reel as the full impact of service cuts comes home.
by Ish Theilheimer and Samantha Bayard
OTTAWA, ON, Straight Goods News, May 2, 2012: The people who work at the front lines for the federal government came together this week to share front-line horror stories and prepare to fight back. The timing of the triennial convention of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) was remarkable. It came just weeks after the federal budget that killed the jobs of thousands of PSAC's members.
Straight Goods News talked to some convention delegates for a sense of what's happening on the front lines. The stories they told were disturbingly similar, of frustrated clients, unmet needs, nonsensical management expectations and workers heartbroken about being dumped after decades of loyal and committed service.
Kelly Megyesi, PSAC's BC Women's Coordinator, says the budget cuts are "absolutely devastating to women," who are disproportionately affected both as workers and clients.
"We have women who are not going to be able to afford to pay for their child care, we have women who look after elders — it's just this whole global issue and it's totally devastating to all our members."
Megyasi works for Service Canada, which handles EI and other benefit claims, and says the impact of the cuts is "absolutely huge" for clients. "Before Christmas, we had backlogs that were just unacceptable levels. We had people waiting like three months to get benefits." Megyasi herself has received job notice, and she scoffs at government claims her clients won't be affected.
"How can that be when we are not able to provide service to people and you're going to provide it even less to them?"
The cuts are particularly hard on the women who deliver the services being cut, she says. "A lot of women chose the public sector as an employer because it provided what they felt was a safe kind of employer where they felt their services were needed. They provide good customer service. It's a good fit for women. Now that's being jeopardized."
Kelly Megyesi talks about the effect of federal cuts on women.
Jocelyn Bordage works with Service Canada and is a member of the Immigration Union. "With the cuts to the regional offices people of Canada, people will have less access to one-on-one contact with our service providers," she said. "For example, you go to a regional office and you can apply for unemployment insurance, Canada Pension, Old Age Security, SIN cards, etc. But when you cut some of these offices, that means you also cut the staff. That means that the average Canadian has to travel further to access those services. If you are like me and you are perfectly mobile, that's fine — it's a bit of an inconvenience... But when you are already a person who has mobility issues, that is a huge problem — or if you're poor.
"You also have the assumption that everyone is computer literate. If you know how to manœuvre a computer and you can afford a computer, that's great. What the front line workers do is guide you to complete the form so there are no mistakes. If you do it on the computer and make a mistake, it can delay your processing by five to six weeks before it's caught. So this is huge. To say that it is not impacting services, I don't know from what reality we are talking about because we see it everyday."
Jocelyn Bordage talks about the effect of federal cuts on her clients at Service Canada.
Niru Channan is a Citizen Service Officer and also works for Service Canada. She says that although the government says cuts are all to administrative staff, it will affect client service because "it takes more time to process applications. It's a sad day. We do passports, we do pensions — Canada Pension and Old Age. I do EI, people who have lost jobs, people who have work permits and would be coming to get a Social Insurance Number. These are very important services — they are not trivial."
Niru Channan says she delivers very important services that are not trivial at Service Canada and service delivery will be hurt.
June Winger works in research for the Department of National Defense in Suffield, Alberta, predicts, "The effects of the cuts are going to be drastic to our Canadian military." Her research area, protective garments, will all be contracted out to private companies. "It will be consumerism that decides what is going to be looked after in our military. I frankly don't think the military is a priority any longer to this government."
She is upset that at CFB Edmonton, "they are laying off all the kitchen staff there and telling the military that they are now going to be working in the kitchens. So, they'll be cleaning the tables and scrubbing the pots and pans, which is probably not something that the military members have enlisted to do." And because most soldiers earn $10 per hour more than kitchen workers, it will actually cost the government money.
"And now we are further degrading [military personnel] by taking away their science and technology support. We take care of all of their training, make sure that they are on the forefront of the leading edge of sciences and that's all taking a far backseat, all in the name of saving a dollar and at the cost of security to Canadians."
June Winger says the Canadian military is being undermined by cuts to DND.
Daniel Toutant works for Parks Canada in Trois-Rivi res, Québec, at the National Historic Site of Forges du Saint-Maurice. The cuts will mean no more historic interpreters to greet people to explain about the National Historic Site. "Eventually the people will have to use the machines and have no conversation with a human being." With so many interpretive and maintenance staff cuts, "it's not a wave we received at Parks Canada, we received a tsunami." His fellow members "feel like it's psychological harassment. What about your job, what about your future?"
Daniel Toutant says cuts to Parks Canada are like a tsunami.