Canadian public servants could face discipline for shirking return-to-office rules

By on 18/01/2023 | Updated on 18/01/2023

The Canadian federal government has said public servants who refuse to resume work at shared workspaces in accordance with its return-to-office mandate could face repercussions from managers on a case-by-case basis.

The mandate went into force on 16 January and requires public servants to work in federal office buildings at least two to three days a week. The new rules will be introduced in phases to smooth the transition for departments and staff and are expected to be fully implemented by 31 March.

Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board of Canada, told The Canadian Press that management would be in charge of deciding whether non-compliant public servants “face disciplinary measures or not” and that “each situation will be assessed case-by-case”.

Building on points made after the mandate was announced in December, she said that the Canadian public service needed a standardised hybrid work model to avoid “inconsistencies” in departmental approaches. Fortier had previously said that the mandate would strengthen collaborative work, fairness, and equity across federal workplaces.

Read more: Canadian government readies return-to-office mandate

As the new rules take effect, two federal unions have urged the government to rethink its position, claiming the mandate poses a health and safety risk to employees and would cause inconvenience and confusion.

In an open letter to the federal government published on 13 January, Jennifer Carr, president of The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, stressed the need for a hybrid work model that “considered employees’ unique circumstances and job requirements”.

“While we support the idea of ‘presence with purpose’ at the office when justified by operational needs, we strongly disagree with a one-size-fits-all policy that has no evidence to support it, puts our members’ health and safety at risk, and contradicts the government’s own strategic goals,” they said.

They added: “From 16 January, thousands of managers and supervisors will inherit the unnecessary burden of enforcing the policy, and many more employees will scramble to re-organise their lives once more. The transition will be unnecessarily costly for everyone involved, including Canadian taxpayers.”

National president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Chris Aylward, urged the government to “come to the bargaining table” and negotiate for the protection of members’ rights. Describing the toll the mandate had already taken, he said: “Our members are completely confused.”

Seeing Reddit

Canadian public servants have expressed their frustration at the new rules on the r/CanadaPublicServants subreddit chatroom.

One user commented: “If ‘equity’ is the reason for RTO [return-to-office] and we all have to work hybrid 2-3 days in office, are the people who exclusively work in office also being forced to work hybrid to make it ‘fair’? My guess is no.”

Another highlighted the challenges public servants needing to take time off for sickness or childcare duties could encounter if held to a set number of mandatory office days.  

Read more: Canada’s hybrid work plan stokes discontent among public servants

“If I can’t come in because I’m sick do I carry over those two days till the next week? Then the next week when my kid catches it do I have to carry it over to the next? We reached out to the director level and they basically told us they have no direction and no answers. Where is the limit?,” they said.

Meanwhile, it is understood that some public servants have had problems securing desk space. Many government offices were rented out to private tenants during the pandemic and have since required federal staff to book desks online, leading to availability issues that have reportedly forced people to work in cafeterias or on floors.

The Treasury Board responded to complaints, saying that departments and agencies would work with Public Services and Procurement Canada to ensure adequate resources by the end of March.

Canada’s public service headcount is expected to grow to 409,000 over the next five years – an increase of 18,000 personnel on 2021 figures.

Read more: Canadian public service headcount set to rise

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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