09/09/2014 11:59 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

Ontario civil service managers get $4,500 payments, but don't call them bonuses

TORONTO - Nearly half of Ontario's civil service managers will receive lump-sum payments worth a total of $17.5 million this week, but the province's cash-strapped government insists it was not handing out bonuses during a wage freeze.

Cheques averaging just under $4,500 each will be issued Thursday to about 3,900 managers in the Ontario Public Service, despite a three-year public-sector wage freeze announced in 2012, the Treasury Board confirmed.

"About 44 per cent of these OPS managers are eligible to receive a lump-sum payment — not pay for performance — as part of their regular compensation package to ensure they maintain the same salary they had the previous three years," Treasury Board spokeswoman Samantha Grant said Tuesday.

"In the absence of these payments eligible employees would see their salary reduced."

The total amount of the payments to public service managers is down $3.6 million from last year, and 900 fewer managers are eligible for the cheques, added Grant.

"An estimated savings of more than $80 million have been realized as a result of initiatives applied to OPS management compensation since the freeze began," she said.

However, the Progressive Conservatives said the Liberal government should not be handing out what it calls staff bonuses until the $12.5-billion deficit is eliminated.

"Now we see they have no concept of restraint whatsoever," said PC finance critic Vic Fedeli. "Call it whatever you want, but it's a bonus."

Handing out bonuses and calling them something else only makes the public more cynical and distrustful of the government, and gives Ontario voters "buyer's remorse" for re-electing the Liberals to a four-year majority in June, added Fedeli.

"It's a big oops," he said.

The New Democrats said there's very little patience amongst the public for a government that uses a "double standard" by imposing a firm wage freeze on provincial workers while their managers get bonuses.

"This government is pretty good at nickel-and-diming front-line public service workers, and they can't seem to get a handle on this cycle of performance bonuses at a time when obviously we all should be showing greater restraint," said NDP finance critic Catherine Fife.

"You certainly can hold the line and freeze the wages of those at the bottom of the public service and yet you can't do the same" for the managers?

Fife said the government's decision to hand out the lump-sum payments to managers "compromises the trust that all Ontarians have in public service, so it's quite damaging actually to the work that we're all trying to do."

The Liberals are looking to squeeze every dollar to generate new revenue to balance the books within three years as they promised, but they refuse to deal with the cause of the deficit, their over-spending, said Fedeli.

"They're talking about trying to balance the budget but they have no plan to balance the budget," he said.

Meanwhile, eHealth Ontario confirmed that 735 employees will receive a total of about $2.4 million in "incentive payments" this fall, ranging up to 15 per cent of their base salary.

The agency tasked with creating electronic medical records agreed to the bonuses after eHealth workers launched a class-action suit in 2012 to recover bonuses that were promised in 2011 but then denied by the Liberals' wage freeze.

Lawyers had advised eHealth it would likely cost more to fight the lawsuit because the workers all had written letters promising them bonus payments.

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