Federal departments are bracing their employees in advance of the 2012 budget, and at least one, Correctional Service Canada, is suspending a program that allows term employees to qualify for permanent jobs.
Don Head, the commissioner of CSC, informed employees this week that the rules for term employees have been suspended immediately.
For years, government workers brought in on temporary contracts could work their way into permanent jobs under certain conditions, usually by working for about three consecutive years. But Mr. Head's memo suggests permanent workers who lose their jobs in budget cuts may be offered term positions.
Conservative ministers have said they would rely largely on attrition to find staffing cuts. However, reducing the number of workers on short-term contracts allows Ottawa to cut staff without formal layoffs.
"As a result of carefully reviewing our departmental workforce demographics and the anticipated impacts that the Deficit Reduction Action Plan may have on the Correctional Service of Canada, we have decided to suspend the term conversion provision for term employment," states the memo.
A spokesman for CSC said the move is to give managers "flexibility" as they prepare to implement budget cuts. While the total number of term employees could decrease over the medium term, the spokesman said it may actually increase in the short term.
"This allows for CSC to ensure that present indeterminate employees are provided the maximum opportunity for employment should they be affected under the Work Force Adjustment Directive," she said in an e-mail.
James Lahey, a former senior public servant with several federal departments who is now with the University of Ottawa, said he expects cutbacks will affect term employees in many federal departments.
"It's stupid to bring in new people when you have to lay people off," Mr. Lahey said. "So doing this is not shocking." It will, however, mean job losses for term employees who might have been expecting a permanent job as they approach the three-year mark.
"There will be some people who will be hurt and who will be disappointed," he said.
Meanwhile, a similar memo to staff at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did not mention term employees, but did say staff will receive further information "on budget day and thereafter."
"Every effort will be made to manage the effects on employees and any decisions which need to be made will be based on fairness and respect for all involved," states a recent memo from George Da Pont, the president of CFIA.
While public-service jobs will clearly be affected by this year's budget measures, Conservative officials are signalling that the cuts will be relatively modest.
There are varying estimates of the size of the federal public service, as some government agencies are treated as separate employers. A Statistics Canada report Tuesday listed federal government employment at 416,418 as of December, 2011, but that figure includes full-time and reserve military personnel. The Public Service Commission says the size of the "core public service" is 216,709.
The most recent Public Service Commission statistics show Ottawa is curbing public-sector growth. While the core public service grew from 188,354 in March, 2006 to 216,045 in March, 2010, growth was kept at 0.3 per cent last year. Term hiring in 2010-11 was down 21.9 per cent from the previous year.
On Tuesday, the government released its spending plans for the fiscal year starting April 1. It shows the government is aiming to keep spending growth at 0.4 per cent, with an overall budget of $251.9-billion. The plans, known as the main estimates, do not include spending cuts that will be announced in the budget.
As they stand, the main estimates do not currently suggest large cuts to public-service staff. In fact, government-wide spending on personnel is projected to climb slightly to $36.9-billion, from $36.7-billion the year before.