Audit, Actually

I watched the Standing Committee on Public Accounts session last Wednesday during which it looked into what had happened at Island Employment (IE) — the session that ended with the PC majority on the committee voting against Dartmouth North NDP MLA Susan LeBlanc’s motion asking Auditor General Kim Adair to conduct a forensic audit of the organization.

I wrote my story at that point, ending with the vote, but it was like leaving the movie theatre as the credits start to roll and missing the blooper reel.

Standing Committee on Public Accounts Members, NS

After the meeting, the vice-chair of the committee, PC MLA for Shelbourne Nolan Young, wrote to chair Kelly Regan (Liberal, Bedford Basin), to say voting down the motion had been an “error” and request a redo. Premier Tim Houston himself even came out and said he, personally, had always wanted an audit.

What makes this even more puzzling is that the PCs had asked for and been granted a three-minute recess just prior to the vote during which, I guess we’re to believe, they huddled, decided to vote “Yes,” then went back in and accidentally all voted “No.”

Although the NDP’s Claudia Chender (Dartmouth South), also a committee member, wasn’t buying it. She told the Signal:

I believe that they made an error in voting down the motion, of course. But I don’t believe they made a mistake when they did it.


Own goals

I don’t believe they made a mistake when they voted down the audit, either. With the exception of Trevor Boudreau, the PC MLA for Richmond — the only Cape Breton MLA on the committee, and one whose riding was served by Island Employment — the aim of the Tories seemed to be to deflect any and all responsibility for the mess at IE away from the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration (LSI). In particular, they wanted to deflect responsibility for the 30 employees thrown out of work when the government cut Island Employment’s funding.

Melissa Sheehy-Richard was replaced during the January 19 session by Kent Smith.

Nolan Young, the committee vice-chair, sticking slavishly to his script, began with a statement directed at NSGEU President Jason MacLean:

It has always been a priority to support the employees who have been negatively impacted from Island Employment’s decision to lay off staff. We’ve gone above and beyond what was required of us as government to ensure that they are taken care of during their transition to a new employer.

The problem with this is that, first, according to both NSGEU President Jason MacLean and Deputy Labour Minister Ava Czapalay, Island Employment didn’t “lay off” its employees — it ceased operations when the province cut its funding.

And second, according to MacLean, the government did not set these workers up to “transition to a new employer.” The IE employees’ jobs were not guaranteed and the new service providers chosen by the government, he said, are offering lower pay and fewer benefits while adding prerequisites that make it very difficult for former IE workers to regain their positions.

Shelbourne PC MLA Nolan Young

Nolan Young consults his lines during the January 19 PAC proceedings.

Those new providers are the YMCA, which is advertising a slew of Nova Scotia Works positions, and the Halifax-based Conseil de développement économique de la Nouvelle-Écosse (CDÉNÉ), which is advertising for case managers in Chéticamp and Petit-de-Grat as well as looking for a new executive director, a job posting that went up on January 6.

Young did establish that IE workers were not entitled to severance pay — MacLean explained that “being a new local, there was no severance that had been established in the collective agreement.”

But MacLean said the union had an agreement with Island Employment management that employees would be entitled to severance as provided for in the Civil Service Master Agreement between the NSGEU and the province (the new version of which is currently under negotiation). That agreement states that, where warranted:

…the employee shall be granted severance pay equal to four (4) weeks for every year of service to a maximum of fifty-two (52) weeks pay and for a minimum
of four (4) weeks pay

Instead of honoring this agreement, he said, government provided workers with eight weeks’ severance, enough to cover them until new service providers were announced.

Standing Committee on Public Accounts Members, NS

Brendan Maguire was replaced during the January 19 session by Patricia Arab.


In addition to relieving the government of any responsibility for the workers, Young also (weirdly) questioned the help the union had given them, asking MacLean:

What did the NSGEU do to support staff after the 60-day notice from LSI? How did you help them find new jobs?

But this just gave MacLean the opportunity to first, point out that the job of the union is to help workers defend the jobs they already have and second, explain that the union had hired a lawyer to help the workers form a society and apply to be the service provider. The LSI, he said, put up so many barriers to this it proved impossible.

Young also asked MacLean:

There were reports of a toxic work environment at Island Employment for several years. Just wondering what the union did to help employees during that situation?

This was another own goal as it gave MacLean the chance to outline all the things the NSGEU does to improve relations between its members and employers, including programs designed to help workers deal with workplace conflict. (MacLean actually thanked Young for the question.)

But it also raised an obvious — although unasked — question, namely, if the toxic work environment was common knowledge, why didn’t the Department of Labour do anything to address it?

(I was picking up such anti-union vibes from Young I checked his bio, expecting to find he was a product of the private sector, but he’s an instructor at NSCC — and so, presumably, a member of the Nova Scotia Community College Academic Union. Go figure.)

NDP labour critic (and MLA for Cape Breton Centre-Whitney Pier) Kendra Coombes issued a statement today welcoming the committee’s decision to request a forensic audit, adding:

I am still waiting for answers from the government as to why the workers were forced to apply again for their own jobs and I will continue to ask questions about this issue until there is some clarity.

There’s been no word yet on whether the Auditor General will actually be looking into Island Employment but the police investigation is ongoing and the story, I feel quite confident in saying, is not over yet.