The Trudeau administration spent so much money during the first year of the pandemic that it was easy to lose track of the profound growth taking place in the size of the federal government’s workforce.
Employment across the country jumped more than six per cent year over year to 319,600 for all departments and agencies, according to data compiled by Treasury Board. That’s an increase of nearly 20,000 between the first three months of 2020 and the same period last year.
Last year’s increase was more than double the average annual employment gains posted by federal government workers between 2015 and 2020, covering years the Liberals have been in power. The financial impact was significant: The federal government’s total payroll reached nearly $60 billion in fiscal 2021, up $4.4 billion from the previous year, according to the public accounts.
Nearly half the job gains were accounted for by just three departments and agencies on the frontlines of the war against the novel coronavirus. The Public Health Agency of Canada, responsible for co-ordinating Canada’s response, buttressed its staff levels by 40 per cent in the first year of the pandemic for a jump of 941.
The Employment and Social Development Department and Canada Revenue Agency — which collaborated on designing and delivering emergency benefit payments to Canadians — increased employment by 21 per cent and 5.3 per cent, respectively, for a combined total gain of nearly 8,000.
Two unusual events unconnected to the pandemic contributed to last year’s employment surge. Elections Canada early last year had added 358 staffers — a jump of 40 per cent — in preparation for the federal election that took place Sept. 20. And Statistics Canada and its survey group hired an extra 1,700 individuals to help with the 2021 national census.
The only department that experienced a significant drop in employment was Health Canada, an anomaly that can be explained by government re-organization. Health Canada said the 18 per cent decline in its employment levels last year reflected the shift of one of its units to Indigenous Services Canada, which in turn recorded a 23-per-cent jump in its job levels.
One of the bigger surprises was the marginal increase in employment at Public Services and Procurement Canada, the government’s central procurement agency, which was pressed into negotiating billions of dollars worth of contracts on the fly for personal protective equipment, vaccines and COVID-19 tests, among others.
Despite a tendency of large organizations to centralize during a crisis, this didn’t appear to happen with the federal government. The capital region accounted for 42 per cent of total employment on March 31, 2021, down marginally from pre-pandemic levels. A major influence was the Employment department, which last year hired more rapidly in other regions of the country than in Ottawa or Gatineau: an increase of more than 20 per cent versus 14 per cent for the capital region.
What’s still not clear is how permanent are last year’s employment increases will be.
Clearly the number of jobs at Statistics Canada and Elections Canada will show drops in coming surveys. And the need for people to develop and administer emergency programs also appears diminished.
However, Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, which samples a slightly larger universe of federal government employees — it includes the military, for instance — suggests the hiring has continued unabated. The latest monthly snapshot estimates there were 457,400 federal government workers in February, compared to about 410,000 in the same month a year earlier. The same data shows a year over year drop of five per cent for the capital region.
If most of the additions become permanent, it will have a dramatic impact on the government’s balance sheet because accountants must record estimates for the cost of the future benefits earned by each employee during the year.
According to the public accounts, the government added $19.2 billion worth of future benefits earned by employees last year. Compared to the total spending increase of $270 billion in fiscal 2021 — it ended March 31 — that may not seem like much, but it adds up.