Canadian public service unions blast government’s hybrid work advice

By on 02/08/2022 | Updated on 02/08/2022
Public service chief Janice Charette expects employees to work from offices part-time over the summer to test drive running departments with a hybrid workforce. Photo by Ken Lund via Flickr

Public service unions in Canada have criticised the federal government’s plan to bring employees back into offices on a hybrid basis, calling its advice incoherent and a risk to workers’ health and safety.

Under the Treasury Board of Canada’s guidelines on hybrid work published in May this year, individual departments are given the autonomy to decide “whether the location of work can be made flexible, to what extent, and how”. Public service leaders are also tasked with determining workforce health and safety policies in the context of their department’s specific operations, leaning on guidance from public health authorities and health and safety committees where necessary.

Barb Couperus, a Treasury Board spokesperson, said the “diversity of the federal government’s workforce and operations” meant “there will be no one-size-fits-all”. Instead, departments would be expected to test a range of hybrid work models. This chimes with a letter sent to deputy ministers by public service chief Janice Charette, who said she expected employees to work from offices part-time over the summer to test drive running departments with a hybrid workforce.

Listen: Exclusive podcast with Canada’s ex-cab sec Michael Wernick

But Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), said that the decision to devolve responsibilities to departments means there is no coordination across government, making it difficult to advise its 60,000 members.

She added that the plan could make remote working arrangements at “more flexible, understanding organisations” more attractive to officials. “In a tight labour market, public servants have options,” Carr said.

Threat to health and safety

As Canada battles its seventh wave of COVID-19, other unions have raised concerns about the federal government’s plan. Last month, the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) urged government to suspend it, saying in a statement to its members that the guidelines posed a “serious and unnecessary risk to the health and safety” of its members and would put needless strain on Canada’s already struggling hospitals.

“Enabling our members to continue to work remotely is and remains the best approach to eliminating the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace,” it said.

Jeffrey Vallis, spokesperson for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), meanwhile, said the health and safety of workers “should always be the priority”, that many of its members wanted the flexibility to continue to work remotely, and that the alliance would seek to make remote work a fixture of agreements as bargaining rounds continue.

Greg Phillips, president of CAPE – which represents more than 20,000 federal workers – said that part of the problem with the government’s strategy was the lack of justification given as to the timing. He urged government to “treat [public servants] like professionals and show [them] the rationale”, adding that buy-in could only be expected once it had explained why it was necessary to implement its plan now. “Obviously, they didn’t think this thing out completely. Otherwise there wouldn’t be this mass confusion all over the place,” he said.

Vaccine mandate under fire

The latest disagreement between federal government and unions follows a spat earlier this year about officials placed on leave without pay for failing to comply with the government’s mandate requiring all public servants to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Read more: Canada lifts COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal staff

In May, PIPSC and CAPE filed grievances in conjunction with the PSAC against the mandatory vaccination policy on behalf of members placed on leave without pay for more than six months. They asked that the federal labour relations tribunal force government to allow suspended unvaccinated employees to work from home and reimburse them for lost wages.

However, Canada’s intergovernmental affairs minister Dominic LeBlanc said in June that the government would not reimburse unvaccinated public servants placed on unpaid leave.

PSAC condemned the position as an abuse of authority that put its members in a deep state of insecurity. Phillips meanwhile said that CAPE would “actively pursue justice for our members”.

Read more: Expanding the talent pool: how hybrid work can make public sector jobs a better fit for everyone

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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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