Why striking PSAC members want remote work enshrined in their contract

Christine Griffin holds a sign at a Public Service Alliance of Canada picket at the Tunney's Pasture government complex in Ottawa on April 19, the first day of the walkout. (Joseph Tunney/CBC - image credit)
Christine Griffin holds a sign at a Public Service Alliance of Canada picket at the Tunney's Pasture government complex in Ottawa on April 19, the first day of the walkout. (Joseph Tunney/CBC - image credit)

Language for post-pandemic telework should be enshrined in contracts for Canada's 150,000 striking federal civil servants, say their union, with workers arguing it's good for the environment, their own well-being and the public they serve.

Employees with Canada's largest public sector union are in their second week of a nationwide walkout to back demands for issues that include higher wages and working from home. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) wants contract language entrenched in a universal work-from-home policy.

After COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted, the Treasury Board of Canada — the primary employer of the core public service — announced a blanket policy on telework in mid-December, telling employees they should return to the office for two to three days a week, starting in mid-January. The plan was fully implemented at the end of March.

PSAC national president Chris Aylward immediately condemned the new in-person work mandate for public servants, saying it was "arbitrarily announced," "poorly planned" and issued with "zero consultation with the unions."

The union said in a statement in December that working of any kind, done remotely or in the office, should be negotiated at the bargaining table.

WATCH | Return-to-office mandate 'disrespectful' to public servants, union leader says:

Tens of thousands of striking PSAC members took to Parliament Hill on Wednesday, including some who say they don't plan on budging from the picket line until a work-from-home option is included in any deal.

"I think it's in the best interest of all Canadians that if we can work from home, that we continue to do so. It's better for the environment, it's better for our mental health and so many issues," said Angela Bilmer, who was on the picket line in Ottawa.

"We have the technology now, so let's do it. Working from home, getting that language in our collective agreement would be a huge step forward."

Working from home is beneficial on several fronts, including an improved work-life balance, said Rebecca Marchand-Smith, who also took strike action on the Hill on Wednesday. Leaving it up to managers to make decisions on remote work is an arbitrary approach, she said.

WATCH | Treasury Board head announces 'common hybrid model' for return to office: 

"Because then the government could come in and say, 'Five days in the office, back to work now,'" she said, "and so we need a stronger stance on the stronger wording from this."

"Hybrid is here to stay, but it's the managers' decision. So I think that in terms of climate and in terms of people's well-being, in terms of people's energy and quality of life, working from home, the majority of the time, is the way to go."

Savings keep adding up

John Klotz, a certified financial planner in Markham, Ont., estimates that someone doing a full-time job from home in the Greater Toronto Area instead of commuting could save  as much as $1,800 a month by doing away with the cost of gas or transit fares, child care, eating out and buying professional clothing.

"You're not going to the office and buying a latté anymore or that expensive sandwich; you're making your own at home," Klotz said.

"It adds up. It was serious overhead," he said. "Plus, workers can justify writing off a home office."

Push for work-life balance not new

Alison Braley-Rattai, associate professor of labour studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said telework has been an important conversation for many Canadians prior to the pandemic with the "movement toward things like work-life balance, even environmental impacts of commuting, gridlock, things like that."

"There has been a kind of conversation about whether or not there should be more work from home, hybrid arrangements and so forth," she told CBC Radio's Daybreak Alberta this week.

"But the pandemic absolutely put that into the starkest relief possible — when anyone who could work from home was sent home to do so."

Canadians reorganized their lives in order to work from home and then realized they could reap the benefits — and for some, that meant a better work-life balance, Braley-Rattai said.

WATCH | Federal government draws red line on telework in negotiations with PSAC: 

Break from 'brutal' commute

Dan Barrett, a PSAC local president in Toronto, said on Thursday that he finds working from home a relief from the city's "brutal" commute and that it helps with productivity, but there are also wider benefits that come with enshrining these rights "so they're properly controlled."

He said it would be a "better setup for the future to serve Canadians better" and could be used as a foundation for other collective agreements.

In a statement last Monday, the Treasury Board said it was willing to do a "formal review" of the telework directive with unions to ensure its approach is "fair and supportive of our employees" while ensuring they can serve Canadians.

At the same time, however, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said it's the right of management to continue to evaluate how to best deliver services, and telework will not be part of a collective agreement.

In addition to a work-from-home agreement, PSAC had requested a 13.5-per-cent pay raise over three years, but Aylward told CBC's Power & Politics on Wednesday that the union has already "moved twice" on its wage demand.

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