The Alberta government has extended the wage freeze for non-union public service employees, citing in part the economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Given the current economic crisis, the Government of Alberta is extending the salary restraint for non-union Alberta Public Service and public agency employees until March 31, 2021," public service commissioner Tim Grant told government managers Wednesday in an email obtained by CBC News.
"Wages and other benefits for Alberta public sector workers in many occupations are significantly higher than in other large provinces, as is highlighted in the 2019 MacKinnon Panel report," Grant said.
He said the government's goal is to "restrain public sector compensation so it will align with national averages over time." Union employees are not affected, Grant said.
Alberta wages higher across the board
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said he thinks most Albertans would see the wage freeze as reasonable during the COVID-19 pandemic. But he said he is troubled by some of the other justifications the government used when announcing the wage freeze extension.
"It is true that Albertans, for the last 20 years, have been getting paid more than people doing similar work in other provinces," McGowan said. "But that is true in both the public and private sectors.
"They are not acknowledging that we have a higher wage economy and I think most Albertans would say that that's a good thing," he said, adding those higher wages also drive spending.
McGowan said public-sector workers often haven't experienced the same sort of wage increases those in the private sector have, during years when the provincial economy was booming.
Finance Minister Travis Toews was unavailable for an interview Thursday.
"Given the current economic landscape, holding the line on compensation is respectful to the reality facing many Albertans who continue to see their wages reduced or have lost their jobs," Jerrica Goodwin, the minister's press secretary, said in a statement. "The need for wage restraint does not diminish the respect government has for public sector workers."
Wage freeze in place for years
In January 2016, the former NDP government froze the salaries of public-sector managers and other non-union employees for two years, saying it would save $28.5 million annually. The move affected about 7,000 provincial workers.
In November 2017, the NDP extended the freeze to the end of September 2019, and the United Conservative Party has maintained it. The freeze was set to expire at the end of this month.
"Government is mindful about the length of time the salary restraint has been in place and will be looking closely at ideas and initiatives to support employee engagement such as cost-effective learning and development opportunities," Grant said.
His email referenced a report produced by the MacKinnon Panel, a group the UCP government convened last year to help Alberta balance its budget and find savings. The six-person panel was chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon.
One of the panel's recommendations, however, was to end the wage freeze on non-bargaining employees and provide merit-based and reasonable wage increases "to ensure the equitable treatment of all Alberta public service employees (bargaining and non-bargaining) and support the attraction, engagement and retention of qualified staff."
"They recognized that, especially in many professional categories — whether it was engineering, science, management — people working at the senior levels in the public sector were actually getting paid less than their counterparts in the private sector," McGowan said.
"So it is ironic for the government now to point to the MacKinnon Panel as justification for keeping the freeze in place."