Tom Sweeney

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PS skirting its own hiring rules by using temp workers, watchdog warns

Posted by sweens on September 23, 2010


By Kathryn May, The Ottawa Citizen September 21, 2010

OTTAWA — Federal departments appear to be using thousands of workers hired through temporary help agencies to circumvent their own rules and laws, says Canada’s staffing watchdog.

In a letter to a parliamentary committee, Public Service Commission president Maria Barrados flagged some of the worrisome trends that have emerged in the initial phase of the commission’s year-long probe of the government’s $300-million a year dependence on temporary-help agencies.

She said early analysis reveals “a number of patterns that suggest circumvention” of the Public Service Employment Act, which governs staffing in the public service. She cited concerns that workers are staying in temporary jobs too long and they can use these temporary postings as footholds in the public service that give them an “unfair advantage” when landing full-time positions.

“The PSC feels that temporary help workers may have an unfair advantage over other candidates in the public service processes, either through the experience they gain or through connections they make with hiring managers,” said the letter sent to the Commons government operations committee before Parliament recessed for the summer.

Critics have long argued spending on temp agencies has exploded over the years because departments rely on them to help them skirt the time-consuming hiring, language and geographic rules they have to follow when filling positions.

However, Barrados’s review is the first major study of the scope of the government’s use of agencies. She is only examining the core public service — departments under the Treasury Board umbrella. The final study will be tabled in Parliament with her annual report in early October.

Meanwhile, the Senate is also considering a motion to have its national finance committee investigate the cost and use of staffing agencies.

The government spends about $7.5 billion a year on contracts for a range of professional and special services. At $300 million, spending on temporary help agencies is a small slice, but it has grown at a much faster rate than for all other professional services and contracts.

Agencies have a stable of workers in almost any occupation who have been screened and can be placed in jobs on a moment’s notice. Workers are paid by the agencies, which in turn charge the government placement fees.

The $300-million figure is four times the amount of 20 years ago and twice the amount of 10 years ago. Nearly all of the spending is in the National Capital Region, where many department headquarters are concentrated, but only one-third of the public servants work.

Many say the growing reliance on temporary workers has only exacerbated the massive turnover in the public service, where people move from job to job.

The government has always hired temporary workers to fill in for workers who are absent or managers who need extra staff for a short-term project, to clear backlogs or to fill vacant positions while they are recruiting to fill them. Barrados acknowledges these uses are critical to help departments manage day-to-day.

The problem is this flexibility is being abused and many worry temporary positions are becoming a backdoor entry into the public service.

It’s a problem Senator Pierrette Ringuette fears is watering down the quality and stability of Canada’s public service. She is also concerned temporary agencies have become an entry for political and bureaucratic patronage.

“Are bureaucrats and politicians sending people they want to these agencies to be placed? If that is the game being played, it isn’t fair and it’s illegal,” said Ringuette.

“I think we are destroying the high quality of public services Canadians enjoy and pride ourselves on. Government is not a temporary operation, so thinking and planning that way will lead to eventual chaos.”

Ringuette argues the Public Service Commission has the technology to recruit pools of temporary workers. This way departments hire temp workers directly, pay them higher wages and avoid the fees paid to agencies acting as middlemen.

The commission’s study is aimed at getting a handle on how and why the agencies are being used, including a picture of how long the workers are staying in jobs; whether they get an unfair advantage in landing a permanent job and whether departments are using temp workers for “long-term needs” when they should be filling existing job vacancies.

The initial sampling of contracts in various departments found a “substantial number” were for longer than six months.

The longest contracts went for people filling jobs other than clerical or administrative work.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Read more: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/temp+tactics+skirt/3553968/story.html#ixzz10MEdZ08r

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