Nelligan O'Brien Payne gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Alessia Petricone-Westwood, Student-at-Law in writing this blog post.
Employment as a political staffer on Parliament Hill comes with a number of privileges and advantages – political connections, career advancement, and the ability to support and influence Cabinet Ministers. However, these privileges and advantages may be outweighed by the lack of job security and employment rights associated with political staffer positions.
The Public Service Employment Act (PSEA), which governs the members of the public service, contains a provision that permits Ministers to hire an executive assistant and other persons required in his or her office. This provision also allows Ministers to dismiss the employee with or without just cause. A political staffer’s job can disappear if their Minister loses their seat in an election, if the Minister is shuffled out of Cabinet, or if the Minister resigns.
Aside from the lack of job security associated with an ever-changing political climate, political staffers can also be fired at the whim of their Minister. As such, political staffers are not afforded the same rights and protections as most other public service employees, whose employment relationships are governed by federal or provincial labour laws. The lack of protection under federal or provincial labour laws means that political staffers can be dismissed without just cause or an appropriate severance package. Importantly, if a staffer feels that they have been wrongfully dismissed, they do not have the opportunity to grieve the dismissal, nor is there a union to take up their cause.
This was illustrated in a recent CBC News article, in which a former staffer explained that she was terminated when she was under a doctor’s care, and advised to be off of work due to illness. Unable to grieve her termination, she commenced a lawsuit against her former employer for wrongful dismissal in 2013. A judge ruled that the Ontario Superior Court of Justice did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter, and it was dismissed.
While working on the Hill without the protection of federal or provincial labour laws is an obvious problem for staffers, there are many challenges to solving it. One challenge is that it is difficult for political staffers to know who their employer is: whether it is the Treasury Board, who is the employer for the federal public service, or the individual Minister who hires the staffer in their office. The second challenge would be establishing the appropriate legal forum in which staffers could challenge a wrongful dismissal, fight for their rights, or establish any entitlement to benefits.
One option to protect political staffers would be to allow them to privately bring their disputes to arbitration, without the support of a union, just as wrongfully dismissed employees in the private sector do. The details could be included as an arbitration clause in a staffer’s employment contract. Another way would be to consider them exempt employees for certain purposes under the PSEA, but create a dispute resolution process that would allow them to grieve a wrongful dismissal. This process could be similar to that available to employees in the public service, for example, allowing for mediation or adjudication at the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board. While the nature of their employment in a volatile political environment may limit a staffer’s job security, the inclusion of a dispute resolution mechanism in their employment contracts could protect them against wrongful dismissal.
There is one group of political staffers on the Hill who are protected by a collective agreement: NDP staffers are members of UFCW. This not only provides NDP staffers with a grievance procedure if they are wrongfully dismissed, but also affords them positive employment rights. This is another option for current staffers who are not unionized.
Political staffers work in the public service. They are appointed to provide support and assistance to Cabinet Ministers. As such, they should be afforded the same protection against wrongful termination and given the same rights as other public service employees.