Federal workers strike highlights desire for work-from-home flexibility

Federal workers strike highlights desire for work-from-home flexibility

Discussions around remote work are growing as the Canada-wide strike by federal government employees heads into the second week, with one labour markets expert saying the desire for work-from-home flexibility is unsurprising.

More than 150,000 Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers walked off the job last Wednesday, demanding higher wages and universal work-from-home policies.

On Monday, Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board — the federal department negotiating with striking PSAC workers — said on CBC's Power and Politics that a telework policy would not be a part of the collective agreement, but within the purview of managers.

"It is a red line, it is the right of management," Fortier said. "It's so important that we have the flexibility for managers to see how we are going to best deliver services."

Jamey Mills, regional executive vice-president for PSAC in B.C., said during Wednesday's walkout in Vancouver that the union wants a work-from-home policy enshrined in their collective agreement.

WATCH | Government says no to enshrining remote work in union agreement: 

"Right now, the employer is the only one deciding if someone can work from home," he said. "It's unilaterally applied and the changes are not being done in consultation with the union."

The union has pushed back against a return to in-office work before and after the federal government announced in December 2022 that workers generally had to return to the office two to three days a week.

Mills said managers should not have the discretion to take remote work away from employees.

Sylvia Fuller, labour markets expert and sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, said she is not surprised workers want more flexibility, after having adjusted and learned to do their jobs effectively while experiencing the benefits of working from home over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said workers securing universal work-from-home rights would be an unprecedented change.

"It shifts that norm in a pretty fundamental way," Fuller said on CBC's Early Edition. "It will be a very important precedent however this goes."

She added that other unions and organizations will be looking to seeing how this is resolved.

"It switches it from being a, 'mother, may I?' ... to instead being the norm."

Fuller also said the federal government recognizes the value of flexible work, having brought changes to the Canadian Labour Code for private-sector workers.

"They talk, in these changes to the labour code, explicitly about the benefits of providing more power and flexibility to workers," she said.