Thursday, November 21, 2013

Province violates policy on reclassification request

Daily Gleaner

DON MACPHERSON
20 Nov 2013

Sheriff’s officers in New Brunswick want to be reclassified as something more than receptionist-level civil servants, but the province hasn’t dealt with their request or concerns in more than a year.

The Daily Gleaner has obtained a copy of a letter written by New Brunswick Union president Susie Proulx-Daigle to Justice Minister Troy Lifford, reiterating the union’s contention sheriff’s officers should be reclassified to a higher pay level.

The letter, dated Oct. 9, notes the union filed a position description questionnaire as required by the provincial government’s classification review policy to show how sheriff’s officers’ duties have changed and to justify the reclassification.

They’re seeking to be reclassified from ASL2 level to ASL4. The former has a pay range of $1,191-$1,411 biweekly, and the latter $1,520-$1,827 biweekly, meaning the officers are seeking a bump of $329-$416 per paycheque.

Proulx-Daigle’s letter notes the initial questionnaire was filed in August 2011, followed by a final version in June 2012.

The classification review policy calls for such reviews to be done within 60 days of the receipt of the finalized questionnaire.

“There has been no mutual agreement, and the 60 days is now 14 months overdue,” Proulx-Daigle wrote in the letter from last month, meaning the government’s response and action is now 15 months past the due date required by the policy.

The NB Union president noted sheriff’s officers were first classified as ASL2 in the late 1990s, and ASL2 is a category “typical of reception-type duties.”

At the time, she wrote, sheriff’s officers “performed a variety of standardized work routines of limited scope while supervision was readily available.”

But that’s since changed, she said, noting sheriff’s officers are responsible for courthouse security, security of detainees, transportation of prisoners, jury management and other responsibilities.

Sheriff’s officers are also peace officers under the Criminal Code of Canada, Proulx-Daigle wrote, which bestows on them certain powers and responsibilities such as enforcing the Criminal Code and other laws.

“This includes but is not limited to arresting or detaining individuals as well as executing warrants and court orders,” she wrote.

Among the changes that affect the positions, Proulx-Daigle said, was a more guarded and cautious atmosphere in the justice system.

“In response to heightened security awareness in recent years, the Department of Justice and Consumer Affairs deemed it necessary to increase the level of security at most courthouses province wide,” she wrote.

“Sheriff’s officers routinely deal with verbal abuse, intimidation, potential and actual violence from prisoners, or their associates. The sheriff’s officers routinely encounter resistance and must physically remove, restrain or arrest individuals who may be armed and who are at high risk for HIV and hepatitis.”

She argued the officers deserve the reclassification and the pay hike.

“They have exercised great restraint and patience throughout this unnecessarily prolonged process and are seeking your consideration and an exercise of your influence with the Department of Justice and Consumers Affairs as well as the Department of Human Resources to ensure the classification review policy is respected and adhered to,” Proulx-Daigle told Lifford in the letter.

When speaking with The Daily Gleaner on Wednesday, Proulx-Daigle confirmed she wrote that letter to Lifford, and she said she has since received a response from the Justice minister.

“I got a generic message saying, ‘We’re working on it,’ ” she said, noting Lifford offered no timeline for the process.

It’s frustrating to the affected members of the New Brunswick Union that the government’s dragging its feet on the request, she said.

“I feel it’s unfair,” Proulx-Daigle said, noting there’s no penalty for the province for not complying with the timeline set out in its own policy.

She said once a decision is finally made about the reclassification request, if it doesn’t go the sheriff’s officers’ way, there is a process set up to appeal such a decision.

But when it comes to the long delay in getting a response or decision, Proulx-Daigle said, the employees are powerless.

She said she’s worried the delay might stem from extensive staffing cuts the government has made recently. Another possible cause, she said, might be the austerity mode and era of fiscal restraint in which the provincial government has placed itself.

“That may be why it’s taking so long,” Proulx-Daigle said.

When contacted for comment, Lifford issued a brief emailed statement through his communications director Dave MacLean.

“We value the work that the men and women in our sheriff’s services do daily on behalf of New Brunswickers,” the statement said.

“I am aware of this particular issue, and it is my understanding that the reclassification decision is in its final stages, and the outcome will be communicated to employees in the near future.”

Questions about the cause of the delay in processing the request and what the possible outcome of the request might be weren’t answered.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Paulette Garnett said she couldn’t comment on compensation or reclassification for sheriff’s officers. But she sang their praises based on her work with them in the Justice Building in downtown Fredericton over the past 15 years.

“They are great,” she said on Wednesday. “It is a very, very difficult job.”

She said the sheriff’s officers she’s worked with and whom she’s observed over the years have been incredibly professional, even in the face of challenging and even abusive situations in the course of their work.

The judge said she’s never seen or heard of any kind of alleged misconduct on the part of sheriff’s officers working at the Fredericton courthouse.

“You know the kind of stuff they have to put up with,” Garnett said, referring to the verbal and even physical confrontations that can arise as a result of courthouse security and prisoner supervision duties.