Government takes heat for pre-lockdown denial of work-from-home to parenting employees

·4 min read
Confederation Building is the home of Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial government. Management has taken heat in recent weeks for refusing to allow people to work from home despite a steep spike in COVID-19 cases.
Confederation Building is the home of Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial government. Management has taken heat in recent weeks for refusing to allow people to work from home despite a steep spike in COVID-19 cases.

(CBC - image credit)

A single mother in St. John's was forced to take annual leave last week because her employer — the provincial government — said her children prevented her from being eligible to work from home.

Another employee asked his manager to allow him to work from home last week. He was denied because his child had no babysitter. He was later identified as a close contact of a coworker who tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to quarantine along with his child.

These are just two of the stories coming out of the Confederation Building last week that CBC News was able to confirm.

The provincial government — which put work-from-home measures broadly in place after a province-wide lockdown was ordered Friday night — has come under fire for a policy that states employees must have child-care arrangements before being eligible to work at home.

"While current human resource policies state that dependent child care needs to be arranged, departments often work on a case-by-case basis to make accommodations for employees with dependent children issues," reads a statement from the provincial government on Friday.

"For example, offsetting work days or modifying work hours. If accommodations cannot be arranged, employees can avail of their leave entitlements."

Accommodations denied for some workers

CBC News spoke with government workers across several departments, and found the child-care policy was being enforced differently across the board.

Some managers were happy to help their employees work from home, while others did not accommodate workers with children at home.

Schools closed in the metro St. John's region last Monday as a steep spike in COVID-19 cases. Parents scrambled to work from home in accordance with the advice of Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, who has repeatedly urged people to work remotely wherever possible.

They were told to fill out a pair of forms — one is a work-from-home agreement, while the other is a risk assessment checklist.

The agreement has a section titled "family responsibilities" which states child care must be arranged. The checklist considered unattended children to be a workplace risk.

The single mother who spoke with CBC News said she filled out the forms honestly and her manager told her she couldn't work from home if her children would prevent her from working her usual hours.

Why the change of attitude?

Everyone who spoke with CBC News said they worked from home last spring without issues.

Some said they didn't understand why the attitude toward the arrangement had changed.

The man who was identified as a close contact of a coworker that tested positive said his managers put his health and safety at risk, as well as the health of his child.

The single mother said she felt she was being punished for having kids. (CBC is protecting the identity of these employees in case of backlash in their workplaces.)

She would have run out of annual leave this week and would have taken an unpaid leave of absence to stay with her children until it was safe to arrange child care.

When Fitzgerald reverted the province to Alert Level 5, the provincial government was left with no choice but to allow everyone other than the most essential workers to work from home.

The government's overall attitude toward work-from-home drew criticism last week, but now the particular policy regarding parents is drawing heat from other advocates.

"Women's ability to work cannot be left up to the whims of their manager. This sets a dangerous precedent," tweeted Jenny Wright, an advocate for women's rights and former head of the St. John's Status of Women Council.

"This policy by the Newfoundland and Labrador [government] particularly punishes women who are too often expected to shoulder family responsibilities including childcare," wrote Farrah Khan, a gender equality advocate in Ontario. "The misguided policy will push women out of the labour force and have long-standing ripple effects on the gender wage gap."

Carey Majid, executive director of the province's human rights commission, tweeted a "friendly reminder" to employers that they have an obligation to accommodate employees to the point of undue hardship because of their family status.

"Policies are great, but they need to be applied with these human rights obligations in mind," Majid said.

Apart from parents, CBC News spoke with several provincial government employees last week who said they were being denied the right to work-from-home despite working from home in the spring without issues.

The province's public sector unions intervened late last week and began negotiating with the province to send people home.

Sources tell CBC News a deal was in place that would have seen most employees working from home on Monday before Fitzgerald announced the new COVID-19 cases were a variant strain and the province would be sliding back to Alert Level 5.

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