Civil servants and soldiers: some are more equal than others

Except for the benefit initially calculated at five per cent more than the civil service plans, the Canadian Forces disability plan falls short in several important provisions.

 By Robert Smol and Sean Bruyea-THE HILL TIMES- October 8, 2007

There’s one thing a soldier manning a machine gun in Afghanistan and a civil servant manning a desk in Ottawa or Gatineau have in common: neither is likely aware of the details of their long-term disability plan, at least not until tragedy strikes.

But soldiers may be forgiven if they assume that the military’s long-term disability (LTD) plan is on par with the civil service plan. Both civil servants and soldiers have additional benefits for work-related injuries. However, a closer look at the LTD plans of both gives a barometer of sorts as to how the government compensates those in public service, in and out of uniform. Indeed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed the belief of the vast majority of Canadians when he stated that “military service is the highest form of public service.”

Enter now the financial reality of risking your life for Canada and the world 24 hours a day. When comparing the military and civilian long-term disability plans one sees that the LTD plans afforded to the civil service are in key areas considerably more generous than those granted to members of the Canadian Forces. This situation appears counterintuitive as it is widely recognized that the personal lives of soldiers on average endure greater strain than that of most civil servants. It is in the personal lives when LTD plans are most relevant.

Should a Member of Parliament or bureaucrat injure themselves falling down the stairs of their basement or cottage receive better long-term disability coverage than a military person disabled in a car accident driving home late from the military base?

“This is a golden parachute that they have compared to our lead parachute,” says retired sergeant Ron Cundell, a disabled Gulf War veteran who lives near Barrie, Ont. “Their whole disability benefits and pension plan is so different from ours. I have had a lot of my friends who are still in the Forces call me and say, ‘We’ve got to educate ourselves.’ ”

There are two plans for employees of the federal civil service: Disability Insurance (DI) for employees covered by collective bargaining, and the Public Service Management Insurance Plan (PSMIP) for those in management not included in collective bargaining. PSMIP also has a sub-category: executives with enhanced benefits. Mandarins in the EX, SX categories as well as deputy ministers, EAs to ministers, Members of Parliament and Senators have their long-term disability paid for 100 per cent by Treasury Board. Senior officers in the CF with the rank of full colonel and above also enjoy this ‘free’ benefit via the Service Income Security Insurance Plan LTD or SISIP.

On the other hand, federal civil servants covered under collective bargaining, pay 15 per cent of the premium. Treasury Board covers the rest. But what is truly unique about the Canadian system is that a member of the military is required to pay out-of- pocket to help cover the costs of their own disability benefits, even if that injury occurs while on duty. Although other Veterans Affairs benefits kick in for duty-related injuries, in the area of income loss, SISIP is the ‘first-payer’ for LTD for which the soldier also pays 15 per cent of their disability insurance premium while Treasury Board pays the difference.

On the receiving end, except for the benefit initially calculated at five per cent more than the civil service plans, the CF disability plan falls short in several important provisions.

To begin with both PSMIP and DI are not allowed to deduct ‘Pension Act’ monthly awards for pain and suffering, but the military’s SISIP plan deducts every dollar of the Veterans Affairs monthly disability award. This serves as an insulting testament to the military service of the more than 4,000 injured soldiers who are collecting or have collected SISIP LTD benefits since October 2000 and are therefore too disabled to work.

“A VAC award is also referred to as a gratuity and, by definition, a gratuity means a, ‘Thank you in appreciation,’ ” says Cundell. “So when Canada and the government thank me for loss of health and quality of life to my face, the bureaucrats are behind me picking my pocket of that gratuity. So to a disabled veteran gratuity has a completely different definition, compliments of the bureaucrats.”

“Something is wrong here, very wrong,” says retired corporal Kevin Landry a disabled veteran who served as a driver during the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia. “We don’t have the right to public assembly or protest in uniform and once we are out we are scattered across the country. If we were a smaller country we would have gotten together to have this problem looked at.”

And in spite of the fact that the current and previous military ombudsmen have called for an end to these deductions, nothing has been done to date. This, in spite of the fact that the ombudsmen’s recommendations were supported by the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs not to mention a majority of MPs who last year passed the Veterans First Motion which included the requirement for the government to “eliminate the unfair reduction of SISIP.”

“Back when I was a sergeant, if I made a promise to my subordinates I either carried through with that promise or I told them exactly why I could not follow through–I did not leave them hanging and that is how I kept their respect,” says Cundell.

Another hallmark of the government’s disability caste system is the fact that PSMIP and certain senior military officers also receive life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment and dependent’s insurance, premiums for which are covered 100 percent by Canadian taxpayers. These plans continue to be paid for by the federal government even when the executives must go on long term disability. Canada’s disabled soldiers receive nothing like this.

While annual increases are capped in both plans, the civil service plan nonetheless allows for 50 per cent more annual increases than the Canadian Forces’ plan which is capped at two per cent. Considering that inflation (Consumer Price Index) has been above two per cent in five of the past seven years, the CF plan’s advantage in benefit payout would be eroded in short order.

Furthermore, federal bureaucrats can continue contributing to their retirement pensions while on an LTD rehabilitation program, a provision not granted to our wounded soldiers. For veterans such as Cundell, whose medical condition forced him to retire two months shy of his full 20-year military pension, this limitation serves as an especially difficult pill to swallow.

“You were told from day one sign this paper and we will take care of you if you get sick,” he says. “Well you did not tell me that it was going to be an adversarial program that was going to put the blocks on me every time I turned around.”

Paradoxically, the civil service plan does not deduct CF retirement pension if awarded due to a medical release from the CF but the Forces disability plan deducts this important benefit. For Kevin Landry, fate and government policy denied him any opportunity to collect a military pension.

“I failed my medical and I couldn’t buy back my time,” he says. “I did everything to keep my job and still it wasn’t enough.”

Corporal Landry was medically released with six years regular force service and six years in the reserves. Since he did not have 10 years in the regular force, he did not qualify for a Canadian Forces retirement pension. Federal bureaucrats, however, qualify for a retirement pension after only two years service if disabled.

Although qualification for both plans does not stipulate whether the disability is caused in the workplace or not, there is a dramatic difference in how the two plans are administered. Civil servants can still be employed in their original position on partial work hours and collect LTD. Canadian Forces members must leave the forces first before collecting benefits. There is no provision which allows CF members to return to work on partial hours and still collect LTD.

Finally, Treasury Board will step in and cover deficits accrued by two of the four disability plans they govern (PSMIP, DI, SISIP and RCMP) but this guarantee does not include the plan covering Canada’s soldiers.

It all boils down to compensating risk. The investment world understands this very well: higher risk requires higher reward. The investment Canada’s government has made in our soldiers has this fundamental law backwards. Most Canadians would easily dispute that a desk-bound senior bureaucrat in Ottawa or even a rear echelon general faces more risk than the frontline soldiers in bases across Canada or in Afghanistan.

“We have to go to war even if it is against our will,” says Landry. “There is a huge difference; we are soldiers; but all the while we in the most dangerous jobs get screwed.”

SISIP refused to return our calls to them on this topic.

Sean Bruyea is a retired captain and disabled soldier who served as an intelligence officer in the Canadian Forces for 14 years. He is now and advocate for other disabled veterans. Robert Smol served over 20 years in the Canadian Forces. He is currently a teacher and a freelance journalist in Toronto.

The Hill Times