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Growing concern over shuttering of Service Canada offices

On March 27 we wrote an editorial on this site criticizing the government’s decision to shut down Service Canada sites across Canada. We argued that with unprecedented numbers of Canadian seeking unemployment benefits for, in some cases, the first time ever, that more than ever in-person assistance was a must. We suggested that Service Canada should have explored enhanced security to enforce social distancing and aggressive behavior before closing the offices.

In today’s National Post, noted Canadian employment lawyer Howard Levitt weighs in:

Trudeau’s real scandal: Shuttering Service Canada centres when our unemployed need them most

Imagine if health-care workers refused to attend the ill

The biggest scandal of the Trudeau years just occurred, but most Canadians are oblivious to it. This is not some intellectual debate about prosecutorial discretion, that was triggered by the infamous SNC Lavalin Group Inc. scandal. Instead, it involves the abdication of the government’s most fundamental job, dealing with the dispossessed at a time of national emergency. Last Thursday, most Service Canada centres across Canada were shut down as a result of workers calling in sick and the union encouraging them to walk off, and stay off, the job.

Service Canada is where more than a million new employment insurance claimants applied last week, with potentially millions more using that service soon. It’s where elderly Canadians apply for Old Age Security. By removing their ability to provide in person services, our public servants are ignoring society’s most vulnerable.

The government says claimants can apply remotely. With the service centre phone lines jammed and many senior citizens collecting Old Age Security and EI claimants not even owning a computer or the sophistication to navigate the online world, Canadians are being deprived of the very EI benefits Trudeau has been promising.

The union encouraged them to invoke their right to refuse to work under the Canada Labour Code, claiming that the workplace was not safe because some members of the public might have COVID-19. It was reported that one public servant claimed that a member of the public coughed in his direction. That one citizen could have been asked to leave. But a person coughing should not lead to a whole centre being shut down, let alone across most of Canada. Would a medical office or grocery store close because a member of the public coughed?

There are frontline workers such as cashiers, earning much lower wages, when Canadians need them, at grocery stores and in other essential services dealing with the public. But there is no service more essential than Service Canada.

We have never had, in Canada’s history, so many claimants seeking employment insurance. Canadians who are unemployed, and desperate to file their EI claims and begin resuming income, for what could be a prolonged period before they are employed again.

Processing EI claims urgently is critical. An MNP consumer debt poll this week revealed that around half of Canadians surveyed are now on the brink of insolvency, saying they are $200 or less away from not being able to meet their debt obligations each month.

If Service Canada workplaces were genuinely unsafe, the answer would not be to abandon serving vulnerable Canadians but to ensure appropriate measures are taken to make them safe; requiring social distancing, sanitization and asking that anyone experiencing symptoms or who had been abroad, to telephone rather than come into the office.

Service Canada, unlike grocery stores, has desks and counters and could easily manage distancing. But, in the event there were legitimate safety concerns, accommodations can be made, in the same way that plexiglass barriers have been quickly set up in grocery stores to protect their attendants, and procedures changed if necessary to ensure worker safety.

I was initially hoping, when I heard the story, that the union would order their members to work. Instead, they instructed them not to work. I then hoped that the Liberal Government would order these civil servants to return to work on pain of discharge. Instead, the government closed down all centres across Canada and redirected employees to serve Canadians over the phone.

The real scandal is that our federal government, rather than ordering these public servants back to work, backed down and shut all Service Canada centres, exposing the most vulnerable Canadians to no replacement income just when they need it most.

With up to 4 million predicted to be at least temporarily unemployed in the next little while, many Canadians would gladly take their positions.

The very job of these workers is to help the less vulnerable in acute need of the services. That should be sufficient reason to discharge public servants if the government orders them back to work, as it should, and they refuse to attend. Imagine if health-care workers refused to attend the ill.

The public is already upset that private sector workers are being laid off without pay while public sector workers, many of whom are not working but receiving full pay and benefits.

The Liberal government’s response is not a surprise. It has a history of pandering to civil servants in return for votes. That’s one reason they do so much better than their private sector peers in wages, pensions, benefits, job security and working hours.

Canadians are fearful of being economically crippled as parts of the economy are now on life support. In the middle, those tasked with supporting the most vulnerable Canadians are abandoning ship and leaving the most vulnerable to peril.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers who ignored his order to return to work. As many as 7,000 flights had just been cancelled, at the peak of the summer travel season in response to a union walkout accompanied by a demand for salary increases. Reagan threatened to fire any controller who failed to return to work within 48 hours and subjected them to a lifetime ban. Reagan’s actions broke the back of the union movement and unlocked a wave of entrepreneurial initiative and economic growth at the time.

Trudeau should have emulated Reagan — instead he caved in to labour unions at the direct expense of his most vulnerable citizens.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt LLP, employment and labour lawyers. He practises employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada.

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