OTTAWA — Federal public service unions say the government's plan to get employees back to the office is confusing, disjointed and jeopardizing health and safety.
The Treasury Board of Canada released its guidelines on hybrid work arrangements in May, tasking government departments with deciding "whether the location of work can be made flexible, to what extent, and how."
Deputy heads will make decisions about health and safety in the context of how their organization runs, guided by public health authorities and workplace health and safety committees, said Barb Couperus, Treasury Board spokesperson, in a statement Thursday.
Over the coming months, she said departments will gather evidence and test a variety of hybrid approaches.
"Given the diversity of the federal government’s workforce and operations, there will be no one-size-fits-all," Couperus said, noting work sites vary from coast guard ships to laboratories and prisons.
Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said the board's decision to "devolve" the responsibility of figuring out how to bring employees back into the office to individual departments means approaches are not co-ordinated and vary widely.
She said that makes it difficult for the union to give guidance to members on how a proper return to work should happen.
Given that many of its 60,000 members — some of whom are scientists — have been working on the front lines since the start of the pandemic, Carr said it's seeking assurances that workplaces are safe.
Specifically, that means ensuring there are proper ventilation rates and appropriate capacity limits, and appropriate masking policies.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Association of Professional Employees called for a suspension of return to offices, citing concern with “the serious and unnecessary risk to the health and safety” of its members being required to return to the workplace as the COVID-19 pandemic enters a seventh wave.
It also said hospitals simply cannot handle any unnecessary increases in infection rates.
President Greg Phillips said in an interview Wednesday that members have not been given any rationale for why it's necessary to start the hybrid session and come back into the workplace now.
"Treat us like the professionals we are, show us the rationale," said Phillips. "Explain to us why it's necessary, and then we'll get our support and our buy-in. Otherwise we're left to just wonder — to not know what the heck is going on."
The association represents over 20,000 federal workers, including people who provide translation services, employees in the Library of Parliament and civilian members of the RCMP.
"The health and safety of workers should always be the priority as departments make decisions around bringing employees back into the office and workspaces," said Jeffrey Vallis, spokesperson for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, in a recent statement.
Vallis said his group has asked the Treasury Board to build flexibility into the plans so employers are ready for future COVID-19 waves and variants, and to phase in the return to offices to ease workers’ anxieties.
He said that most members are still working remotely and many want to continue having that flexibility, and that the alliance will fight to enshrine remote work in its collective agreements during the current round of bargaining.
Treasury Board President Mona Fortier in February gave permission to departments to "resume their planning to gradually increase building occupancy, while continuing to respect the appropriate use of workplace preventive practices."
She also said at the time she expects organizations will adjust their planning based on the evolving public health context.
Health Canada's public service occupational health program provides federal departments and agencies with workplace health guidance, including on COVID-19.
That program updates its guidance according to the latest science and most recent advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Couperis said. Fortier was not immediately available for comment.
But employees have options if remote work arrangements are a priority, and that may drive people to "more flexible, understanding organizations," Carr said.
She also said there has to be a valid reason for the change, recounting the experience of one member who had to come back to the office only to be connecting virtually with their colleagues once there.
"Is that really valuing the employee? In a tight labour market, public servants have options," she said.
Phillips said he wants the Treasury Board to hold consultations with the unions so they can raise questions about the approach to hybrid work.
"Obviously, they didn't think this thing out completely. Otherwise there wouldn't be this mass confusion all over the place," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press