Later this month, collective bargaining agreement negotiations are starting for the Economics and Social Science Services group (the EC classification) that I’m a member of. I’ve worked full-time in government since fall 2016 but it was only last year that I realized I should sign up for emails and updates from my union, the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE). Local #527 represent!
Being part of a union nowadays – kind of like, er, having a pension – feels like a weird and fantastic historical anachronism, but in a good way. It’s a huge privilege and I’m really grateful to the CAPE staff and volunteers who advocate on our behalf.
With collective agreement negotiations on the horizon, here are some things I’d like to see as part of the conversation. These are just my own views (not my union’s, and not my employer’s) and they’re definitely worth taking with a grain of salt.
Less pay, more time off
As other public service friends have pointed out, discussions on public sector pay can get political fast and usually end badly for everybody. We’re very lucky as public servants to have the pension and benefits that we have, on top of our salaries. Public sector salaries also span a huge range depending on your field of work and level of experience; they can be unusually generous in some areas and very uncompetitive in others (notably, senior-level software development and tech roles in the CS/IT classification that are paid far less than equivalent private sector rates).
As an EC, we’re …paid really well. (This is why I’m not on the negotiating team, you’re all welcome.) It’s easy for me to say that given that Heather and I don’t have kids or other family responsibilities at the moment, especially while other folks might be struggling with steep inflation and cost-of-living increases (not to mention a completely broken rental and housing market). What we don’t have is time, and I’d love to see a bigger focus on that (compared to what might be a typical focus on year-over-year percentage salary increases). I’d like to see:
1. More vacation days.
- In the federal public service (in most classifications), you get 3 weeks of vacation a year. After eight years of service, that increases to 4 weeks. In contrast – a friend who joined our team a couple years back from France pointed out that French public servants start with 6.5 weeks of vacation days, plus bank holidays and so on. European public servants with income averaging might have 10 or 12 weeks of vacation each year.
- For Canadian public servants whose families aren’t in the Ottawa/Gatineau area, it’s easy to burn through those 3 weeks of vacation just trying to visit family over the course of a year. At least 5 weeks of paid vacation each year would be a good minimum starting point; I’d happily take an equivalent pay cut to make that happen.
2. Clear (and encouraged) 3-day or 4-day workweek options.
- Countries and companies around the world are beginning to introduce formal 4-day workweeks. All of the evidence coming in shows that employee productivity basically stays the same, while reducing burnout and increasing employee happiness.
- Even if a broader shift to 4-day workweeks doesn’t happen, making it possible (and genuinely encouraged) to switch on an individual basis to 3-day or 4-day workweeks (taking, for example, a reduction to 60% or 80% salary) would be a major improvement. I love my work and my team, and I would still switch to a 4-day workweek (and 20% pay cut) in an instant.
- My wife’s team in the Yukon government has several people working on 60% or 80% time (referred to as “0.6” or “0.8” schedules), in order to have more time to spend with their kids or family members. We should formalize and normalize that in the federal government too.
3. More flexible and longer-term leave without pay (LWOP) options.
- As we all try to modernize the public service and how we work, more cross-pollination between the public, private, and not-for-profit and academic sectors is really valuable. Making the process for taking leave without pay simpler and easier to access would help a lot.
- ECs are able to take leave without pay specifically for educational opportunities, in 1-year increments; we can also take up to 1 year in leave without pay for personal needs. Expanding this to two years – reusable on a recurring basis – would help increase opportunities for ECs to explore work in other sectors, and then bring that expertise back to their departments and teams.
A better experience for new public servants
Joining the federal government can be an overwhelming experience. From bizarre acronyms to complex processes to, well, dealing with Phoenix, it’s not a smooth experience. A lot of the early issues that new public servants run into are directly related to pay and benefits, and could be addressed through updates to collective agreements. Here’s what I’d like to see:
4. Automatic opt-in to both health care and dental.
- For some reason, public servants are automatically opted in to dental coverage, but not health coverage. Presumably that comes from the range of health coverage levels you can opt into (Level 1 to 3), but the result is that new public servants are unable to receive health insurance coverage for potentially weeks or months – either while they wait to be able to access Phoenix and opt in, or because they aren’t sure how to apply through the paper form process. If they’re dealing with chronic health conditions, or are injured in-between, that delay could have major consequences.
- Public servants should have full health care plan coverage automatically from day one (like dental coverage), at the basic “Level 1” level, and that should be baked into collective agreements as soon as possible.
5. Guaranteed access to Phoenix within 3 weeks of joining.
- It usually takes 4 to 6 weeks from when you join the public service to when you can log into Phoenix for the first time. Accessing Phoenix is important for a number of reasons, not least opting into health coverage online, but also being able to see your pay stubs and being able to confirm if you’re getting paid properly! When I first joined the public service, I wasn’t able to access Phoenix for the first couple months of work. I finally logged in for the first time 6 or 7 months later, only to realize I had been paid wrong the whole time.
- By the time you’re a month into your job, checking if your pay is correct is (hopefully) the last thing on your mind. Guaranteeing access to Phoenix within 3 weeks of joining, in collective agreements, would be a way of making sure that this delay is fixed as a priority.
6. Emailed pay stubs immediately from the start (and onwards!).
- In the Yukon government, my wife gets an email every two weeks with a PDF of her pay stub – sent to the personal email she configured. If she ever had a pay issue (less likely, without Phoenix), she already has all the pay documentation she would need to deal with it. As a federal public servant, your only option is to download individual PDFs from one of the CWA apps one at a time. It’s clunky and time-consuming. And if you’ve left the public service, you’re not able to do that either.
- We should have pay stubs emailed to us automatically, to a personal email address that we specify, from the very beginning. This would also help with identifying initial pay issues early, above. (If any public servants are concerned about the security of their own personal email inboxes, they can simply choose not to opt in.) If other employers can do it, we can figure it out too.
7. Bonus vacation days in your first year.
- In your first year as a public servant, your vacation days are pro-rated down to match when you started. If you join in September, you’ll have half the vacation days you’d have had if you joined in March at the start of the fiscal year. That can be a challenge, that first year, to (for example) return home to visit family at Christmastime or be part of celebrations with family and friends with just 1.5 weeks of vacation.
- Even if overall vacation amounts are increased (above), adding a bonus number of days (scaled proportionally) to public servants’ first years would be helpful.
Permanent remote work options, and access to modern tools
The pandemic showed that federal public servants, in a large majority of classifications and roles, can effectively work remotely and from home. In surveys, 85% of public servants want to continue remote and hybrid work options. Shifting to a remote and distributed workforce increases the diversity and representativeness of the public service, making it possible to hire public servants across the country and bring more diverse views and experiences into our teams and departments. It also provides more potential flexibility for work-life balance and being able to care for kids and family members. For EC staff, our work lends itself particularly well to being able to work from anywhere.
8. Permanent “work from anywhere” options, with very limited exceptions.
- Departments are beginning to plan the return to offices, and their approaches vary significantly from one department to the next. Being able to work from home permanently, at employees’ individual preference, should be formalized as the default in EC collective bargaining, given the nature of our work and in order to reduce disparities between departments. Any individual exceptions (where working from the office is required) should be limited and require a detailed written justification.
9. Access to modern tools for data science, for everyone.
- It wouldn’t be a blog post from me if I didn’t mention this! A lot of our work as ECs involves data analysis, budget planning, corporate reporting, and other areas where data science expertise and tooling is essential. Excel is not enough. (PowerBI and other commercial tools are not enough either.) Our collective bargaining agreement should reflect this, given that access to tools affects how productive we are as much as any other aspect of our working environment, pay, and benefits. Having access to modern data science tools – that are equivalent or better than those regularly used in the private sector – should be enshrined in our collective bargaining agreement.
- A working group similar to, or part of, the National Joint Councils (which determines travel per diems, for example) should be set up to determine the specifics of what these tools are, and ensure that they are made available across every GC department within the next year. (If world-class open source data science tools like Python and R Studio – with their library of critical packages like Anaconda and Tidyverse included – aren’t on their list, they’re doing it wrong.)
From what I can tell, opposition to “work from anywhere” options comes from a few places: downtown Ottawa/Gatineau businesses worried about the loss of income, and city council members representing them; real property groups in government nervous about the sunk cost of long-term leases or building maintenance; and middle managers who aren’t sure how to manage employees remotely (or who aren’t as necessary now that remote-friendly tools make flat organizational communication easier).
There are federal public service jobs that can’t work remotely – border guards, health practitioners, national security staff, food and transport inspectors, and front-line service center staff as examples. But as ECs doing research, analysis, and writing work – we can do this from anywhere, and we have an important opportunity to enshrine this into our collective agreement and to role-model how beneficial it is to other classification groups.