The pandemic has shown that lean approaches to staffing, contracting out, or using precarious workers leave Canadians vulnerable in times of emergency. PSAC has recommended that the government’s plans for a recovery from the pandemic include appropriate funding for public sector workers to deliver the programs needed to bridge Canada’s social and economic gaps and build a stronger and more resilient Canada.
Unfortunately, many of the federal government’s 2021 budget commitments for the public service focus on stop-gap measures rather than the long-term investments needed for a just economic recovery.
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
While we were pleased to see significant funding of $84 million to maintain the current complement of Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors who had been hired in response to COVID-19 related backlogs, we are concerned that this funding expires at the end of the 2022-2023 budget year. One of the most important things we have learned from this pandemic is that systems that failed in the face of emergency, must be permanently improved before the next emergency hits. Early in the pandemic, it became clear that Canada’s food security depends on a safe and stable system of food production, including inspection. Inadequate numbers of inspectors when some were forced to isolate or quarantine meant the system was unable to function at necessary capacity when we needed it the most. Going back to minimum staffing levels is not a viable option.
Employment and Social Development Canada
The budget also allocates $298 million over three years for Skills for Success – a literacy and numeracy programming through Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC ) that replaces those slashed during the Harper era. It also includes funding for other skills-based training programs, offered through ESDC. We would expect to see an increase in staffing at ESDC to administer this programming, either directly or through grant distribution processes. Several other examples of new program funding exist in the budget, and similarly, we would expect the government to expand the public service appropriately to deliver these programs.
We did not see in the budget any reference to increasing capacity in Labour Program inspections. Given that significant numbers of COVID infections are now happening in workplaces, including some of the government’s own such as Canada Post facilities, it is of immediate importance the Labour Program be given the capacity to proactively inspect workplaces, and to retroactively deal with complaints and infraction reinspection. This is not just a repeated PSAC recommendation, it is also based on the Labour Program’s own analysis of its needs.
Access to Information
Finally, the budget makes a much-needed investment to improve online Access to Information request services. But we question whether this investment of $13 million, expiring in three years, will result in the necessary hiring of ATIP officers in many government departments. The use of temporary help agency workers to fill ATIP officer roles has increased significantly and continues to do so. This runs contrary to the recommendations of the House of Commons Human Resources Committee’s recommendations in the 2019 Report on Precarious Work. It will cost the government more than hiring public sector workers to fill these roles, and will result in poorer quality service, all calling into question the government’s commitment to open data and transparency.
We are looking to the government to make an immediate and genuine commitment to learn the lessons of the pandemic and to fund a public service that can develop and deliver the programs Canadians need. When the next catastrophic emergency happens, the government must not again be in the position of scrambling to hire precarious contract and temporary workers to provide services that should have already been in place.