Nova Scotia no-layoff clause challenged

Budget, job cuts prompt union grievance
By Sabrina Nanji
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 05/25/2015

The biggest public sector union in Nova Scotia is challenging the government’s decision to lay off a group of employees, saying the move violates the current collective agreement.

A group of former government employees, represented by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), accused the province of breaching contract when it shuttered the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism (ERDT), thereby issuing pink slips to about 40 civil workers.

The union representing those workers cried foul, saying that — per the collective agreement — the government is obligated to find work for displaced employees and pay a portion of their salary in the interim.

Commonly known as a no-layoff clause, the union alleges the government violated that provision and filed a grievance.

"Cuts to public sector jobs released in this budget are a shameful attack on our valuable services and the front-line staff who deliver them," said NSGEU president Joan Jessome.

"This budget is brutal — they are trying to balance their books on the backs of the public service and are decimating our communities across the province."

When the Liberal government released details of its budget earlier this year, it faced significant backlash from public service unions denouncing the cuts. About 78 employees — the majority of whom work in the ERDT — were laid off overall, according to the union.

Twenty of those workers have the option of relocating with their jobs.

Of the laid-off ERDT employees, 11 remain outstanding and have not been placed elsewhere by the government. They will be bounced at the end of a 40-day period, at which point they will be put on a seniority recall list, which expires after two years.

Collective agreement

In it, the collective agreement demarcates the layoff policy in the placement/displacement procedure provision.

Subject to consideration of ability, experience, qualifications or where the employer establishes that special skill or qualification are required, an employee in receipt of layoff and who has not been placed will have the right to be placed in another vacancy.

That new position would be dependent on the fact the employee would have the same classification, when there is a vacancy available.

If circumstances did not permit such placement, any classification would do.

The master civil agreement in Nova Scotia also dictates if a suitable position is not readily available, the employee will have the right to displace another less-senior employee in the same classification.

Full-time employees are not required to accept a vacant positions that has a lower maximum salary than that of the the employee's classification, nor are they required to accept a job with lower benefit entitlements (for instance, a part-time or casual position).

Past precedent

The no-layoff clause was enshrined in the public service’s collective agreement by the previous NDP government and was traded off during negotiations to offset wage concessions.

Employment security provisions are a tactics used by public sector unions when an employer is pushing hard concessions — which is often the cases when governments are in the red.

In NDP-run Manitoba, for instance, the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union has in the past inked contracts with no-layoff clauses in exchange for other traditionally bloated demands (such as wages and benefits).

With the grievance in Nova Scotia still outstanding, public service commission minister Labi Kousoulis declined an opportunity to comment on the matter directly. He did, however, say the employer does not agree that employees continue to be paid after the expiry of the 40-day notice period.

Kousoulis said his department will continue to work with employees who have opted to exercise their placement/displacement rights under their collective agreement.

The next round of bargaining with public sector unions is expected later this year.