Tuesday, May 5, 2015

In defence of public sector workers

Civil servant, public sector worker or government employee.
Say those words aloud and it will conjure up a distinct image for most people. The picture in their head is an office worker behind a desk in a Fredericton building. While that image would be correct for some members of the public sector, it's not true for all.
For years, media and the government itself has - consciously or unconsciously - lead many to believe public servants are the root of financial problems facing the province. Take for instance the 2015-16 budget speech delivered by Finance Minister Roger Melanson:
"With annual expenditures in the range of $2.4 billion, public sector wages represent a significant portion of provincial spending. For this reason, we are targeting a reduction to the public service primarily through retirement and attrition."
Editorials in provincial newspapers are less subtle:
"On a per capita basis, New Brunswick has a much larger civil service than other provinces, and it has the costs to reflect this - costs that have made every resident of the province owe roughly $15,000 in net public debt." - Telegraph-Journal, editorial Feb. 13, 2015.
The above section makes it seem that the reason for the province's debt can be traced directly to the public service and neglects to mention any other contributing factor such as lack of revenue, failed policy from various governments, etc.
In an editorial from April 18, 2015, the Telegraph-Journal refers to the province as having more 45,000 civil servants. While the number is correct, the name is not. 45,000 refers to public sector workers which includes those working in hospitals and schools, for example.
When debating ideas, context and accuracy are important, so let's review the make-up of New Brunswick's public sector workers. Please note, numbers used in this piece are from the provincial government's 2013 Workforce Profile, the New Brunswick Nurses Union website and the 2013-14 Education and Early Childhood Development annual report.
As of Dec. 13, 2013 the province had 45,567 paid employees, down more than 3,000 from 2009. A little more than 69 per cent of the paid employees are classified as full-time (31,731) and the remaining 13, 836 as part time.
Of the total employees, 7,440 are classified as classroom teachers. Approximately 6,900 are nurses. Combined together, nurses and teachers represent about one-third of all public sector employees.
The public service is divided into three parts (Part I, Part II and Part III) in its workforce profile. Part I is made up of those working in departments and are often referred to as the civil service. Part II is made up of those in the school system including teachers, bus drivers and school district employees. Part III includes all health sector employees.
Part I had the lowest total number of employees with 9,202 followed by Part II at 16, 833 and Part III with 19,532.
The NBU has members in each for a total of 8,123. The NBU breakdown is as follows: 4,598 in Part I, 179 in Part II and 3,346 in Part III.
As for the number of civil servants per capita number quoted from the Telegraph-Journal editorial above, there's a few questions unanswered. First, there's no mention of where the numbers originate. Second, it states the province's number is higher than other provinces, but doesn't say where New Brunswick ranks. The third is that its referencing public sector workers and not solely civil servants. The fourth question is the actual ratio, the editorial states its high but never produces the actual number. Finally, the numbers make no reference to the public sector decreasing by more than 3,000 from 2009 to 2013.
Another factor missing in the per capita statement is context. Some provinces offer fewer services than New Brunswick through its public sector. So the comparison is not accurate.
In the past few years, the contributions of New Brunswick's public sector workers have been overlooked due to the fiscal state of the province. However, public servants provide tremendous value to the province. It's through their hard work and dedication that essential services are provided on a daily basis. To look at their work solely through a financial lens is to do them a disservice.