Union concerned for staff as Cape Breton employment agency wraps operations

·3 min read
Workers at Island Employment in Sydney, N.S., received notice that the province is ending its contract six months early, partly due to a damning ombudsman's report. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC - image credit)
Workers at Island Employment in Sydney, N.S., received notice that the province is ending its contract six months early, partly due to a damning ombudsman's report. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC - image credit)

As operations wind down at a Cape Breton employment services agency, the Nova Scotia government and the union representing staff are still at odds over the future of the employees.

Around 30 unionized staff at Island Employment have their last shift with the organization Friday. The workers lost their jobs after the province terminated its contract with Island Employment six months early in the wake of a damning report from the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman.

Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, is concerned the employees will not be able to continue their work, even as other agencies take over Island Employment's contract.

"None of [the employees] were able to get jobs at the new places that were there because the jobs that are there, the prerequisites change for them," said MacLean.

But Labour Minister Jill Balser disagrees. She said the employees are eligible for their old positions under the new agencies.

"The employees are absolutely qualified for the positions," Balser said. "We know that they were providing excellent services ... and we know that that's exactly the skill set that's needed under this new provider."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

However, MacLean also has concerns about the pay and benefits being offered for these positions. He said moving the positions to a non-unionized workplace could amount to "union busting."

"They took good-paying unionized jobs, put them somewhere else and paid them less money with less benefits," he said.

MacLean is also concerned about the employees severance packages, which he said are going to be a flat rate of eight weeks per employee. He would prefer to see employees receive a week's severance for each year served, similar to other government service contracts.

Island Employment, based in Sydney, N.S., taught resumé and interview skills for people seeking work and connected employers with workers. It was created by Nova Scotia Works — a division of the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. Although it was almost entirely funded through the department, the province did not control it as a public entity.

In his June annual report, ombudsman William Smith said his office found "a misuse or gross mismanagement of public funds or assets" after investigating four years' worth of records at Island Employment.

Dave Laughlin/CBC
Dave Laughlin/CBC

MacLean is still demanding a forensic audit of operations at Island Employment as he believes it's the only way to clear the names of his members. MacLean said he doesn't understand why the province won't take a deeper look at the issue.

"I want government to act and I want them to please come and clear [the employees'] names and have a forensic audit and prove where the funds went," he said.

The ombudsman's recommendations did not include terminating the province's contract with the organization. However, Balser said the decision was also based on the government's own internal review.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration, the department has an ongoing monitoring process for its Nova Scotia Works agreement holders.

That monitoring included an annual review, which took into account the Ombudsman's investigation, proposed new spending, and annual expenditures, which the spokesperson said the department found concerning.

MacLean has suggested the unionized employees create a co-operative and take over the contract themselves. However, Balser said the province needed an organization with management experience that could be put in place quickly.

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