Crown workers upset by forced return to in-person work, doctor's note requirement to work from home

·6 min read

Premier Scott Moe says the provincial government will revisit its stance on allowing Saskatchewan Crown workers and public servants to work from home, following complaints from union leaders that workers were being forced to work on site despite rising COVID-19 case numbers.

"Our government will be taking another look at all of our public servants and our Crown sector employees to determine which of them can work from home either on a full-time, part-time or even rotational basis," Moe said at a news conference in Regina.

His comments about Crown workers were part of a broader tightening of restrictions around COVID-19 announced on Tuesday.

They followed concerns raised this week by union leaders, including the union for SaskTel workers, which has filed dozens of grievances on behalf of employees whose applications to work at home were denied.

Employees of some other Crown corporations, such as Saskatchewan Government Insurance and SaskPower, are also unhappy they need proof of a medical condition to work from home, according to union leaders.

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer had last week urged residents to work from home if they can due to rising cases of COVID-19.

Union leaders said not enough Crown workers have been allowed to do that.

"I think [the workers] feel like they're a bit of a pawn in a chess game and being used to restart the local economies and they don't feel that that's proper," said David Kuntz, president of Unifor Local 1-S, which represents SaskTel workers.

"They should still be continuing to work at home following the [Saskatchewan Health Authority] and the [World Health Organization] recommendations."

He said he suspects the provincial government has, until now, wanted more employees back in the workplace to support downtown businesses, adding that hundreds of SaskTel workers have applied to continue working from home.

Kuntz said there have been COVID-19 cases in the SaskTel workforce.

"In some situations, they only came out long after the exposure actually happened, so people are sitting there wondering about transparency and wondering about their safety and if they truly are safe in the work environment," said Kuntz.

Minister Responsible for Crown Corporations Don Morgan said in a written response on Tuesday, prior to Moe's comments, that he has full confidence that the work plans prioritize safety.

"These plans allow our Crowns to continue to provide the services Saskatchewan people rely on in a safe and diligent manner while minimizing the risks associated with the ongoing pandemic," said Morgan.

15% denied at SaskTel

SaskTel said in a written response to questions that it has denied 15 per cent of applications to work from home, known within the corporation as "Telework." It said it could not provide a number for how many applications it received overall, how many were denied and how many are still being processed. One-third of its workforce is working from home, it said.

"Each Telework application is reviewed to make sure it is operationally feasible, but not all positions are able to be performed effectively from a home or remote location," said Michelle Englot, director of corporate and government relations for SaskTel.

Englot said many health and safety measures have been put in place — such as mandatory mask usage in common areas and frequent cleaning of "touchpoints" — and that SaskTel is confident it is providing a safe work environment.

Doctors' note needed at SGI

Kim Wilson is the president of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE) Local 397, which represents workers at Saskatchewan Government Insurance.

She said most union members from SGI are upset they have had to return to work when they were previously able to work from home.

"As it stands right now, in order for you to be considered to work from home, you need to go through employee health and your doctor," she said.

Wilson said the union understands that some people need to work from the office, but she believes more employees are being asked to return to the workplace than are required.

"They can do the job successfully from home and they don't want to be working from the office," said Wilson.

"They don't feel safe. They don't feel secure with the numbers rising and the public coming in."

Policy enables consistent approach: SGI

SGI media relations manager Tyler McMurchy said the policy, which asks for a doctor's note as part of an application to work from home, was established to make SGI's approach to requests consistent and clear.

He said the policy is consistent but not necessarily "one-size-fits-all."

More health and safety protocols have been implemented since earlier in the pandemic, when more employees were working from home, McMurchy said.

He said employees are now on a rotation to manage physical distancing.

"The remote working arrangements with employees were always intended to be a temporary risk mitigation tactic," he said.

"Now that more is known about COVID-19, we better understand how to mitigate the risks."

Work from home if you can: Shahab

New cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan have reached record highs over the past week, peaking on Saturday at more than 300 in one day.

Saskatchewan Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said last week that minimizing risk applies to workplaces too.

"In sectors or industries where you can safely and effectively work from home, you should continue to," said Shahab.

SaskPower workers, specifically, have no policy through which to apply to work from home, said Ian Davidson of Unifor Local 649.

The union president said those workers must also provide a proven medical reason if they want to work from home.

"When it comes to the Crowns, everything filters eventually down from the government. That's my opinion, that they want to keep the economy going and understandably so with the downturn," said Davidson.

"But I think people's safety needs to be at the forefront right now."

Davidson said "anxiety" around going to the workplace is building as case numbers rise.

He said he is aware of positive cases within the workforce at SaskPower.

SaskPower responded to questions in writing, saying there have been no workplace transmissions of the virus.

It said its policy also requires a medical explanation from employees who want to work from home.

"The employee's health care provider is asked to confirm if there is a medical condition that compromises the immune system of the employee, spouse or dependent child placing them at higher [risk] due to COVID-19," said the response.

SaskPower said it is starting a new rotational work-from-home strategy, which it said is a temporary measure, for those who "can do so effectively" starting Nov. 23.

"SaskPower continues to closely monitor case numbers and adjusts its COVID-19 response as appropriate."

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CBC News Graphics

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