PSAC went in front of the federal Labour Board mid-June to fight for the rights of PSAC/CEIU members at the Case Processing Centre (CPC) in Vegreville, Alberta.
In October of 2016, the Department of Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) told its employees that the CPC would close before the lease ran out in early 2019. They told a stunned audience that after almost 25 years in the community, the Centre would be moving to Edmonton, which is 100 km to the west of Vegreville.
The news of the closure was devastating to employees, as well as the town, which has a population of 5,800. IRCC is the largest employer in town, with a total workforce of about 280.
In the process of planning the relocation, the department calculated that if every indeterminate employee chose to relocate, the cost would be about $7.3 million. They also calculated that if every indeterminate employee accessed the separation benefits under the Workforce Adjustment (WFA) Appendix, the cost would instead be $6.8 million.
“Guaranteed reasonable job offer”
Shortly after the move was announced, PM Justin Trudeau told a Town Hall audience that the department would be paying the relocation costs of those permanent employees who wanted to move – and that there would be “compensation and packages” for those who chose not to relocate.
In April of 2017, 150 permanent employees were given formal notice of relocation, with six months to decide if they wanted to move with their position. This is a right they have under their collective agreement, which then provides relocation benefits.
But then the department said that for employees who said no to the relocation, there would be no packages. Instead they would force an ultimatum on employees: either move with the position or be laid off. The rationale for this was that employees who turned down the relocation were given a “guaranteed reasonable job offer” – despite the fact there are no other federal government jobs in Vegreville. Employees would then be forced to choose between a “reasonable” job offer in Edmonton – the one they just turned down – or be laid off.
The union has been fighting them ever since, and the Labour Board hearing was held to challenge that decision.
As of last month, a total of 159 employees had been offered relocation. Only 89 people accepted the first offer to move. Another 15 employees have now accepted the second “offer” for a total of 105.
Many of those have said they have made this choice under duress because they were not being given another choice.
A total of 28 employees have either resigned, retired, or left to take jobs elsewhere in Canada.
The remaining 27 are still working at the CPC and will be laid off at the end when the CPC closes in August. Because of the way the department managed the process, they won’t get a single dime of benefit under the WFA Appendix.
No packages. No compensation.
PSAC argued that employees choosing not to make the move should be entitled to the “options” under the WFA Appendix – which includes a Transition Support Measure of up to a 52 weeks salary, and the possibility of accessing an Education Allowance of up to $15,000.
We also argued that this should have been the path offered to all employees right from the beginning, and that even those who initially decided to make the relocation might have chosen otherwise.
During the hearing we heard the emotional testimony of five women who work at CPC. Their pending layoff has had a devastating impact on their lives. Most of the workers who cannot move have farms, young children, aging parents. The process has created anxiety, mental health issues and financial hardship. The union argues these could have been mitigated if workers had access to the options they should have.
Had the department used the right process, many workers would have been entitled to early pensions without penalty. This too is being denied by the department’s actions.
A callous disregard
Even those who agreed to relocate to Edmonton are negatively impacted. With the largest employer in Vegreville shutting its doors, the real estate market has plummeted. Members are unable to sell their homes, making it even more difficult to buy into the more expensive market in Edmonton.
We have argued that the department’s actions show callous disregard for the impact of the relocation on employees, and that options were clearly open to the employer to allow access to the packages.
The adjudicator has been asked to order the employer to offer employees not wanting to make the move to have access to the compensation packages under the Appendix.
CPC Vegreville processes thousands of applications for IRCC, such as permanent and temporary resident applications which include, student study permits, work permits, visitor applications as well as family unification immigration requests. With a large permanent workforce, the Centre has been IRCC’s most productive Case Processing Centres, often taking on overflow work from other Centres using their “electronic application processing system” (EAPS).
When CPC Edmonton opens its doors on September 4th, fully one-third of the workforce will be brand new. We have argued that the CPC’s capacity to process applications is going to take months to recover from the move.
As a result, PSAC has also proposed that employees not making the move be extended past September, and that they either be allowed to telework, or that IRCC maintain a small transitional satellite office.
So far, the department has rejected both options.