FREDERICTON – The two-year wage freeze announced by the provincial government could cause more turmoil than it’s worth as critics say the policy might lead to larger wage demands in the future.

Freezing the salaries of public employees was a central plank of the province’s budget and has caused a storm of controversy since it was announced.

But some experts say the $155 million government expects to save over the next few years could evaporate if unions return to the negotiating table expecting wage hikes large enough to make up for what they didn’t receive during the freeze.

“In the future, they would come back to the table and say we’ve held off for a couple of years now so we’ll be looking for a bit more,” said Bobby O’Keefe of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. “The bigger issue is whether or not the government gives into that request.”

But Human Resources Minister Rick Brewer said the provincial government won’t let that happen.

“We cannot predict what unions will ask for in the future,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “I can say, however, that we will not implement this freeze today only to spend even more in later years, and see these savings evaporate.”

Basu Sharma, a professor of organizational studies at University of New Brunswick, said the wage freeze is a mistake.

“It is actually not a lot of savings by implementing these wage freezes,” Sharma said.

The savings generated through the wage freeze aren’t worth the potential labour strife the policy creates, said Sharma.

Already the policy has sparked anger with members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Danny Legere, provincial president of the union, said members are prepared to use whatever means necessary to fight the wage freeze.

Public unions were told that if they didn’t have a contract signed before March 17, they would be expected have their wages frozen for the next two years. However, some unions reached four-year contracts with the government just prior to the release of the budget and were able to negotiate their wage freeze for the final two years of the agreement.

Unions that have contracts that don’t expire for several years will be subjected to the two-year freeze following the end of their current agreements.

Legere said he couldn’t say whether unions will demand larger wage increases once the wage-freeze policy is lifted, but acknowledged it is possible.

“When you get into that position, at some point in time you try to catch up,” he said.

The province spent roughly $2.8 billion on wages last year. Because the salaries come from the budgets of various departments, the Department of Finance said it couldn’t provide a detailed estimate of how that figure has changed this year.

Although the province expects the freeze to save $55 million this year, departments still received additional money in the provincial budget for wages.

That’s because the freeze doesn’t apply to all pay hikes.

Provincial government employees will still be entitled to their wage increases, as outlined in contracts, if they’re not at the top of the salary scale for their positions.

As well, employees will still be entitled to move to a higher pay scale if they take on more responsibilities or get a promotion.

Employees can also receive a wage in “exceptional circumstances,” if they’ve shown they’ve gone above-and-beyond in their jobs, said Sarah Ketcheson, spokeswoman for the Office of Human Resources.

Employees won’t receive their cost-of-living wage increases typically worth one or two per cent each year, she said.

Kevin Gaudet of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation said wage hikes should be awarded if an employee is promoted. However, an employee who remains in the same job shouldn’t be given a raise, he said.

Gaudet also cautioned government against making a slew of promotions in the coming year. “That’s where the teeth come in: promotions should be hard to get, they should be few-and-far between,” he said.

O’Keefe agreed that wage freezes don’t necessarily prevent salaries from increasing.

“There are ways to get around a wage freeze,” he said.