There is something amiss surrounding the closure of Island Employment, and hopefully the truth will come out soon.

On Oct. 28, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) called for a forensic audit into financial practices at the agency, and said it intends to file a formal complaint with the Labour Standards Tribunal, arguing the government’s decision to cease operations at Island Employment last month constitutes a reprisal under Nova Scotia’s whistleblower’s legislation.

According to the NSGEU, staff at Island Employment raised concerns about the agency’s financial practices to the Ombudsman’s Office last year.

The office then investigated these allegations under the Public Interest Disclosure of Wrong Act (PIDWA), also known as Nova Scotia’s “whistleblower” legislation, the union said, explaining that the PIDWA is designed to encourage public servants and others to expose perceived wrongdoing in the public service and to protect whistleblowers against potential reprisals.

According to the NSGEU, the ombudsman found there was a misuse or gross mismanagement of public funds or assets under the PIDWA.

The NSGEU said the ombudsman’s office also found numerous administrative defects, including “conflicts of interest by employees, uncontrolled spending practices and lack of adherence to government procurement standards, indulgent spending activities related to food, promotional goods and gifts, and inconsistent and inappropriate practices related to travel claims.”

The investigation flagged weaknesses in how the Department of Labour and Advanced Education (LAE) governed third-party agencies spending public money, the NSGEU asserts.

The NSGEU said the ombudsman’s final report and recommendations was provided to LAE and the employer in April 2021. Six months later, on Oct. 1, NSGEU members working at Island Employment were informed that the province was ending its contract with the agency six months early.

Provincial spokesperson Monica MacLean told The Reporter the department is “moving quickly” to find a new service provider, and is working to treat employees fairly. In the meantime, she said services will continue at Island Employment until late in November, and noted that employees can apply for positions with the interim service provider, the Cape Breton YMCA.

In last week’s press release, NSGEU President Jason MacLean said it appears the province decided to make frontline staff pay for poor management practices and the government’s own failure to protect public funds. Instead of trying to fix the problem with management and the board, the province is sweeping this situation under the rug by ending the contract, and putting 30 people out of work.

None of the staff affected by the termination of the contract will be transferred to the new provider YMCA Cape Breton, the NSGEU confirmed. The union said they will need to apply for their jobs, which have now been advertised as non-union with lesser pay and benefits, as well as new criteria that will make many of these workers ineligible for a job they have already been doing.

The union said many workers are concerned that their reputations have been tainted as a result of the report and the agency’s closure, and that they will be unable to find meaningful employment as a result.

MacLean said a forensic audit must be conducted “immediately” to clear the names of these workers who are not only dealing with the stress of losing their jobs, but now facing barriers to finding meaningful employment in their communities.

The NSGEU said it will be working with members involved to initiate complaints with the Labour Standards Tribunal, as it is the union’s opinion that the government’s decision to cease Island Employment’s operation constitutes a reprisal under Section 31 of the Public Interest Disclosure of Wrongdoing Act. Instead of dealing directly with the issues outlined in the Nova Scotia Ombudsman Report, the NSGEU claims the province punished everyone involved, including those who first brought the gross mismanagement to the ombudsman’s attention.

Even if the province wasn’t trying to punish those employees – who according to their union went to the ombudsman approximately six years ago – the fact this closure came months after a damning report, certainly doesn’t look good.

Still assuming the province isn’t taking revenge on the whistleblowers, at the very least, the province looks guilty of trying to avoid taking any heat from the ombudsman’s report by severing ties with Island Employment, rather than working with employees, clients and the community to find solutions.

Given that the ombudsman uncovered conflicts of interest, a lack of standards, indulgent, inappropriate, and uncontrolled spending, and inconsistent financial practices, it appears the problem at Island Employment was leadership. Surely changes at this level, rather than what appears to be a purge of employees, would have been a more sensible course of action.

And if the province did retaliate against those complaints by closing the agency and putting 30 people out of work, that would be troubling. If it is true, hopefully those who made that decision will face the same accountability they tried to avoid.

Although those are very important questions and issues to probe, the motives behind the decision are not as important as the effect this has had and will continue to have on the community; people lost good-paying jobs, clients are without vital services to facilitate training and retraining, educational upgrading, and finding employment opportunities, while employers are without a means to find workers.

To expect that the YMCA, which has limited resources, can provide a similar level of service is questionable.

Island Employment was well used and much needed, now the work must start to find out what went wrong so this service can be restored.