03/22/2013 07:43 EDT | Updated 05/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Feds to target sick leave in public service negotiations

The federal government says it wants to put sick leave and disability benefits for public servants on the table, with an eye to reducing costs and getting sidelined employees back to work sooner.

The message to public sector unions was part of the federal budget's plan to return to a balanced budget, which also included plans to examine employee compensation and pensioner benefits and propose "changes to the labour relations regime."

"The government will be examining its human resources management practices and institutions in a number of areas, including disability and sick-leave management, with a view to ensuring that public servants receive appropriate services that support a more timely return to work," the budget document says.

Public servants get 15 days of sick leave a year, which can accumulate and carry over year to year. Before sick employees can qualify for disability, they must exhaust any accumulated sick leave.

The disability plan has a 13-week waiting period, so people with less than 13 weeks of accumulated sick leave must take off work without pay other than Employment Insurance sick benefits.

There was no timetable given for when negotiations would begin, other than that the government said it would be consulting with stakeholders "in the coming months."

Unions say plan is 'smoke and mirrors'

Public sector unions had been expecting the announcement, and had previously said they will fight any attempt to roll back their benefits.

In a Facebook post in advance of the tabling of the budget, Public Service Alliance of Canada national president Robyn Benson told the Conservative government to "back off" from their negotiated right.

After the budget was released, Benson said she believes the government is trying to get the public talking about sick days so they don't notice the decline in services.

"That's what they are up to, it's about smoke and mirrors and not being transparent," said Benson.

Claude Poirier, the national president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, said the government's plan for sick days is vague, and said he won't know what it all means until they get to the bargaining table.

"What's their intention behind the words, do they want to reopen collective agreements? I don't think so," said Poirier.

Cost pegged at $3.5B

A report last year from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses said public sector employees average 15.2 sick, disability and personal days a year. The public sector average is 12.9 days, while the private sector average is 8.2 days, the report found. The report said the annual cost to taxpayers of these extra days was $3.5 billion.

The potential savings of clawing back the benefits wouldn't make a significant contribution to the government's plan to balance the budget by 2015-16, but it could offer long-term savings, said Janice MacKinnon, the former finance minister for Saskatchewan.

MacKinnon said she expects the government to offer public sector unions an up-front benefit as a trade-off to any changes to sick days. She added that while unions may not want to budge, they may feel public pressure to do so.