Province, NSGEU spar over Island Employment

HALIFAX: One of Nova Scotia’s largest unions is criticizing the lack of action from the provincial government to save jobs at Island Employment.

In a press release issued on Nov. 18, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) said the 30 employees set to lose their jobs at the end of the month were informed on Nov. 15 that they will be entitled to eight weeks’ severance with no guarantees of future employment.

“By cutting funding the government left 30 people without jobs, just as the holiday season is coming,” President Jason MacLean said in the release. “The government owes these 30 people an explanation and tell them why it was better to cut their funding and take away their jobs, rather than conduct a transparent audit to hold those people actually responsible to account.”

Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration spokesperson Khalehla Perrault told The Reporter via email that any questions on severance and guaranteed employment should be directed to the management and board of Island Employment.

“We can confirm as part of the agreement wind down support, the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration has gone above and beyond to make sure the employees are treated fairly by providing Island Employment with funding that will support a contribution equal to eight-weeks’ severance for all staff,” she wrote.

Labour Skills and Immigration Minister Jill Balser said the statements from the NSGEU were “disappointing and concerning.”

“We’ve been very clear that our focus has been on the employees, knowing that they have provided exceptional services in Cape Breton,” she told The Reporter in a phone interview. “We want to keep the positions under a new provider in the region, and our focus has been on acting quickly to have that new provider in place in the new year.

Spokesperson Khalehla Perrault confirmed to The Reporter via email that the department received two applications from prospective service providers and expects the final selection will be announced in January.

“The incoming provider, as an independent organization, is responsible for decisions regarding hiring and employment,” she wrote.

Balser is confident they will find a new service provider.

“We know that there has been interest,” she said. “Knowing that under the Nova Scotia Works contract that there is interest there. We want to make sure that the services stay within the region and we’re acting quickly to make sure that happens.”

Earlier this month, Balser, extended an invitation to meet with the heads of the NSGEU to discuss what happens after the closure of the Island Employment, but NSGEU Communications Officer David MacKenzie told The Reporter there was no meeting.

“The last communication we have had from the minister was on Nov. 12 where they said they would be back to us with tentative dates,” he wrote via email. “Following our release this (morning), we finally received a tentative meeting with the Minister for Nov. 23, four days after the workers’ last day. The lack of urgency on behalf of government has been extremely disappointing.”

“We are committed to meeting with the NSGEU and we absolutely will meet with them,” Balser responded.

This was just days after the minister confirmed there will be no forensic audit of Island Employment.

Nancy Hoddinott, Senior Executive Director with the Skills and Learning Branch of the Department of Labour Skills and Immigration said the decision not to proceed with the forensic audit was made when the province ended the contract in September.

MacKenzie said the NSGEU believes the decision to withdraw funding was the wrong decision.

“We want these jobs saved,” he wrote. “The issues identified by the Ombudsman and used as the reasons for the withdrawal of funding were all related to issues with the board, senior management and departmental oversight. Instead of dealing with the issues at hand, government just tried to make the issue go away by ending the operation, with no accountability.”

On Oct. 28, the 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 constitutes a reprisal under Nova Scotia’s whistleblower’s legislation.

On Oct. 1, 30 employees with Island Employment – 22 at the Sydney office, six employees in Port Hawkesbury, and one each in Inverness and Chéticamp – were told that the agency was closing and they were losing their jobs.

According to the NSGEU, staff at Island Employment raised concerns about the agency’s financial practices to the Ombudsman’s Office back in 2014 or 2105. 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 in its final report last April that 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 governed third-party agencies spending public money, the NSGEU asserts.

In last week’s press release, MacLean said that none of the recommendations from the ombudsman called for the closure of Island Employment.

“Thirty staff members of Island Employment went to work every day to deliver important services to those who needed them, never once was their job performance an issue,” said MacLean in the release. “Once the financial mismanagement came to light, the government tried to make the situation go away by stopping the funding and closing down the organization. This choice lets the senior staff of Island Employment avoid accountability for their mismanagement and punishes working people right before Christmas. It’s clear the wrong people are being hurt by this decision and it’s not right.”

MacLean said the best way for the province to proceed is by ordering a forensic audit of the financial practices of Island Employment management to protect the reputations of the 30 staff who did their jobs and served their community.

“No one knows what actually took place, how the funds were mismanaged, or who is responsible,” said MacLean in the release. “The only sure thing is that 30 people, through no fault of their own, have lost their jobs because of problems with Island Employment’s management and a lack of board and government oversight. Without any further review, there will be no accountability for the misuse of public funds and those responsible will not be held to account. Why should working people pay the price for the wrongdoing of senior managers?”

“Our concerns have been with the management and with the board, knowing that the ombudsman’s report indicated mishandling of funds,” the minister countered. “Our concerns were not with the employees or the services but with the board and management of the funds.”

Provincial spokesperson Monica MacLean told The Reporter via email that services will continue at Island Employment until late this month.

Balser said the Cape Breton YMCA will be the interim service provider until the new year.

“We wanted to make sure that there was a smooth transition to that new provider and no disruption of service would take place,” Balser stated.

The minister explained that former Island Employment staff can apply under the new service provider.

“We encourage the employees to apply, knowing that they have the skills and the talent required,” Balser noted. “They’ve already been providing exceptional employment services and we want that to continue in Cape Breton.”