A file photo of an NWT government building in downtown Yellowknife. Scott Letkeman/Cabin Radio
The territorial government says it is laying off 20 casual workers this month to comply with the terms of its new collective agreement with the Union of Northern Workers.
The union, however, says the territory is acting without compassion as an employer and there is an “active grievance” over the move.
Casual workers are those hired temporarily to fill short-term gaps. The collective agreement, which came into force in April, says they may only be hired by the same area of the GNWT for up to six months at a time.
As a result, the NWT government said, it is terminating 20 casual employees who were in their positions on March 22, 2019 – the date arbitrator Vince Ready released his recommendations on a new collective agreement – and who would, the Department of Finance stated, be about to break the six-month limit if they remain in their role beyond September 21.
“The GNWT must comply with the new terms of the collective agreement and must do so within a reasonable timeline,” the Department of Finance wrote in a statement to Cabin Radio.
“The GNWT has identified 20 casual employees whose contracts were to extend past September 21, 2019 and have in excess of six months of continuous employment. Each of those employees is being provided with notice of lay-off.”
One such employee first alerted Cabin Radio the lay-offs earlier this week.
Asking for anonymity as territorial government policy forbids negative public comment about their employer, the casual worker wrote on Monday: “I found out today that all casuals (including me) in the GNWT who have a contract of more than six months are being laid off next Friday.
“My director had no idea this was even happening. We are all in the dark.”
The Union of Northern Workers (UNW) told Cabin Radio it had heard from one casual employee about the lay-offs as of Tuesday morning.
The union said the collective agreement’s terms for casual workers had been amended with the intent that the terms would now “provide casual employees with more job security” by allowing certain casual workers an easier route to indeterminate status.
“This was an important piece of the job security protection that was agreed to by both parties,” said Todd Parsons, president of the union, by email.
Parsons said the collective agreement’s provisions are designed to stop the GNWT extending, or re-staffing, casual positions to avoid creating full-time term or indeterminate positions, which come with associated wages and benefits. He refers to the six-month termination point as a “hard stop.”
“The employer is deliberately choosing to use the new provision to lay off these casual employees,” Parsons alleged, “whereas a compassionate employer would offer these employees term positions for any time remaining on their contracts that exceeds the hard stop date – which is an option also contemplated in the collective agreement.
“The UNW has challenged the employer’s application of these provisions and there is currently an active grievance on this matter.”
Grievances are filed by unions on behalf of their members when a misinterpretation or misapplication of a collective agreement is alleged. They ordinarily proceed through ranks of management until either an agreement is reached or arbitration is required to settle them.
Ten days’ notice
The “increasing use of casual workers,” in the union’s view, was one of the sticking points during years of protracted negotiations to reach the current collective agreement, which was only finalized with the help of arbitrator Ready.
Some casual workers had in the past expressed frustration at being held in casual roles for extended periods, without access to the additional benefits afforded to staff in permanent positions.
Both the new and old collective agreements expressly forbid the “systematic release and rehire of casuals into the same positions primarily as a means of avoiding the creation of indeterminate employment or paying wages and benefits associated therewith.”
That said, it’s not clear how the “systematic” nature of that practice is policed. Theoretically, once 30 working days have elapsed and no systematic rehiring can be demonstrated, an individual is eligible to be hired on once more as a casual worker.
Given the territory’s human resources team would have known of the collective agreement’s implications for casual staff from March, or at latest from the agreement’s effective date of April 21, one worker contacting Cabin Radio asked why they had received no earlier warning of their impending September termination.
The collective agreement says casual workers in post for six months are entitled only to a maximum of 10 days’ notice of termination. That appears to be what those affected have received, with two workers telling Cabin Radio they received lay-off notices on Monday with a last day of September 20.
The NWT government confirmed it had “provided notice pursuant to the terms of the collective agreement.”