National Post

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Wednesday, October 20, 1999

Wage dispute could cost Ottawa $5b
Court finds female civil servants were underpaid: Union threatens protest if government appeals ruling to higher court
Sheldon Alberts
National Post


The Canadian Press
Lucienne Robillard

OTTAWA - The Federal Court of Canada yesterday ordered the government to pay 200,000 former and current public servants an estimated $5-billion to settle a 15-year pay equity dispute over lower wages for women doing work of equal value to men's.

Federal employees welcomed the court's decision as a victory for underpaid female workers, but the Reform party warned the ruling puts in jeopardy long-awaited tax cuts for Canadians.

"This is a matter that has also dragged on for far too long, and at far too great a cost for all concerned," Justice John Evans wrote in a 92-page decision.

"I would be reluctant to grant a remedy that would have the effect of imposing further delay, with the consequent injustice that this would inflict on many. Justice unduly delayed in this context is indeed likely to be justice denied."

Judge Evans dismissed the federal government's appeal of a controversial pay equity ruling last year by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that found the government owes employees billions in back pay to rectify wage gaps between men and women who performed jobs of equal value. The dispute affected mostly female employees who work as secretaries, clerks, data processors, educational support and health services staff and librarians.

A group of clerical workers began the action 15 years ago, claiming they were being discriminated against by being paid less than their male colleagues for work of equal value.

Judge Evans rejected the government's argument that the tribunal failed to properly measure wage differences and used a flawed formula to compare the value of work performed by women in female-dominated job categories to that of men in male-dominated occupations.

"It is a good day. I've got a bottle of champagne that I opened the last time they said we were going to win. Now I am going to go drink it," said Colette Gervais, a retired payment clerk who worked for 40 years and believes she is owed about $40,000 in back pay.

Nycole Turmel, acting president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said her union members were "ecstatic" with the ruling.

"The federal government can now do the right thing and settle the pay equity issue once and for all," she said.

The government must now decide whether to appeal the Federal Court's decision or begin negotiations to settle the dispute. It had offered public servants a $1.3-billion settlement last year, which the workers rejected.

Lucienne Robillard, the President of the Treasury Board, said she hopes to make a decision by the end of the week about the government's plans.

"I am not delaying," said Ms. Robillard. "This is a judgment of more than 100 pages. We have to read it, to analyze it ... It will have an important impact on all federal employees, so I think it's normal that we take a few days to look at it."

In the House of Commons, the Reform party demanded to know whether the government would use its $3-billion contingency fund to pay for the decision, or whether the expected $11-billion budget surplus is at risk.

The precise value of the pay equity decision is unknown. Judge Evans' ruling said the price tag could reach in excess of $5-billion; PSAC officials said the amount is closer to $4-billion.

The payouts would range from $5,000 to $60,000 per worker.

"Taxpayers are going to see their tax refund devoted to paying off this government fiasco. It looks a lot like they are going to be able to kiss their tax cut goodbye," said Mr. Solberg.

"The [pay equity] concept is a Liberal concept from 16 years ago and it is one that, frankly, is unworkable."

While Reform urged the government to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, the Canadian Human Rights Commission said further appeals would be a waste of money and called on Ottawa to immediately implement the ruling.

"This clears the air and it establishes what is the law as far as pay equity is concerned," said Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay, the chief commissioner. "The government would be spending money for nothing. The chances [of victory] are slim."

Ms. Turmel predicted federal workers could stage sit-ins at government offices and mount protests if the government appeals the decision.

"At this point, our members will be so angry if they do [appeal] that there will be a reaction. Besides that, they always say that they had the money to pay it. They are talking about surpluses everywhere," she said.

The pay equity dispute began in 1984 when a group of federal employees complained that the government was violating Section 11 of the Canadian Human Rights Act by maintaining "differences in wages between male and female employees employed in the same establishment who are performing work of equal value."

A three-member Canadian Human Rights Tribunal panel was appointed to hear the dispute in 1991, a process that took seven years and more than 250 days of testimony to complete.

The heart of the dispute between Ottawa and the public servants revolves around the problem of defining the value of work that men and women do in different job categories.

The Human Rights Tribunal had compared job categories that were mostly occupied by women with job categories mostly occupied by men. The government argued that these specific head-to-head comparisons by the tribunal were inherently flawed as a method of statistical calculation and as a consequence appealed the tribunal's ruling to the Federal Court.

But Judge Evans found the government's argument "was based on the narrowest possible interpretation of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

"The [government] too often seemed to regard the relevant provisions of the act as a straightjacket confining the tribunal, instead of as an instrument for facilitating [solutions to] longstanding problems of systemic wage differentials arising from occupational segregation by gender and the undervaluation of women's work."

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