NEU survey: Staff rent scheme a “bad decision”

Nine out of 10 predict mass flight from the GN


It’s a good thing for the Government of Nunavut that its workers don’t get to vote on its policies, because if that were the case, its hated staff housing policy would be sitting in a trash can.

A short survey that the Nunavut Employees Union conducted last December among GN workers shows that most believe the GN’s staff housing scheme will soon blow up in the government’s face, forcing large numbers of employees to flee the GN for better jobs elsewhere.

“I’m not surprised. I thought it [the new staff housing policy] was a stupid idea at the time and I still think it’s a stupid idea,” said Doug Workman, the NEU’s president.

About nine of every 10 union members who chose to fill out the survey agree that rent increases imposed under the policy will create an “exodus” of existing staff and make it harder for the GN to replace them. Nearly eight out of every 10 respondents agree with this “very strongly.”

Workman said that when collective agreement talks with the GN start later this year, his union will use the survey to back demands for better cost-of-living measures. The NEU’s current wage deal with the GN expires Sept. 30.

The NEU hired a consultant, Jack Hicks and Associates, to do the survey, following the GN’s announcement of the policy this past September.

Under the policy, staff housing rents began rising toward market levels this past Jan. 1, in the first of a step-by-step set of increases to kick in every year between now and either 2010 or 2015, depending on the community.

In Iqaluit, the GN will get out of staff housing altogether by 2010. In Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay, the GN will get out of staff housing by 2015. The GN will retain the use of staff housing in all other communities.

At the same time, the GN will use a beefed-up subsidy system that protects lower-income workers from the full force of the plan. Employees who apply for the rental assistance program will pay no more than 20 to 30 per cent of total household income on staff housing rent payments, depending on how much money they make, similar to the way rents are calculated for social housing tenants.

The GN says the purpose of the scheme is to encourage more home ownership among its workers, which they hope will produce longer-term stability within what has become a highly transient work force.

But most GN workers who filled out the union’s survey aren’t buying into this hopeful theory.

Only 43 per cent of respondents agree that staff housing rent increases, combined with financial support for would-be homeowners, will produce “a more stable GN workforce.”

A whopping 82 per cent say the staff housing policy is a “bad decision” on the government’s part, with six of every 10 respondents saying it’s a “very bad decision.”

And six of every 10 respondents say they will leave Nunavut sooner than they would if rents were cheaper, while nearly two of every 10 say they plan to leave Nunavut within a year.

This does not bode well for the GN’s recruitment and retention efforts.

After years of struggle, the GN clawed its way up to a workforce capacity of 78 per cent by September of 2005. This means more than two of every 10 GN jobs still lie vacant.

In raw numbers, there are 3,484 full-time jobs, or equivalent-to-full-time jobs, available within all GN departments, agencies, boards and corporations.

As of September, 2005, 2,714 of those jobs were filled. But in a territory with one of Canada’s highest unemployment rates, 770 GN jobs went begging.

Workman says this exacts a toll on the government’s existing workers, some of whom scramble to do work normally done by two or three people, a practice he calls “double or triple jobbing.”

In raw numbers, the biggest holes are in the Department of Health and Social Services (220 vacancies, 550 jobs filled by September, 2005) and the Department of Education (227 vacancies, 907 jobs filled.)

Workman says that even in Iqaluit, home ownership or private rentals are beyond the reach of even most employed people, especially households where there’s only one breadwinner.

“Here in Iqaluit, it’s the high cost. We’re the only place that’s averaging $400,000 a unit,” Workman said, referring to Iqaluit’s inflated real estate market where house prices start at $350,000.

For that reason there appear to be growing numbers of “employed homeless” — people who have GN jobs, but no housing.

“That’s unbelievable. I thought housing was supposed to be a human right, available to all,” he said.

The GN’s staff housing policy though, says the opposite: that staff housing is a “privilege,” not a right.

The NEU’s survey was conducted via email, fax and regular mail, and attracted 237 valid respondents. Most respondents submitted their answers via the internet.

The surveyors caution that “self-selection bias” may have had an influence in skewing the results. This is because the survey may have attracted those who have the strongest feelings about the staff housing policy.

A copy of the survey will soon be available at the NEU’s website at

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