This week, the government released its guidelines for federal public service workers to return to the office as COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease across the country. The plan doesn’t outline when employees will be asked to return to the workplace, instead leaving it up to each department to gradually transition their staff based on a series of conditions that must first be met.
Treasury Board has implemented a number of PSAC’s recommendations, including a clear acknowledgement that collective agreements will be respected, recognition that improving access to mental health support is necessary, and that health and safety committees and unions will be consulted.
The guidelines also acknowledge that many workers won’t be able to return to the office until they have access to important services like child care and schools for their children. Further, they recognize other important preconditions like the availability of PPE; the ability to prepare and maintain a clean and safe physical space; and the coordination mechanisms needed to plan, supervise and monitor the transition.
PSAC has some concerns with the current guidelines:
Since department heads will oversee the return to workplaces, there is a risk that the guidelines will not be followed consistently across the federal public service. Local managers should not be allowed to create unequal working conditions between departments.
We want to make sure that appropriate scientific experts are determining whether worksites are safe and what personal protective equipment is required – not local managers
We expect workers to get at least two weeks’ notice before they’re asked to return to the workplace.
There was little about consulting employment equity committees on issues related to return to the workplace for designated groups, including people with disabilities. We urged the government to commit to a process that takes into account COVID-19's impact on diverse groups such as women, racialized workers, LGBTQ2+ workers, Indigenous workers and those with disabilities.
Until there is a vaccine, keeping both our members and the public safe means allowing employees to work remotely for as long as needed, and ensuring workplaces have all the appropriate safety measures in place should they return to the workplace.
New telework policy?
As he announced the new guidelines, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos said that one lesson learned from the pandemic is that it's possible and perhaps practical for some public servants to work from home permanently. He added that the government has started reflecting on the number of offices and office spaces that they want over the next few years.
COVID-19 has created an opportunity to rethink telework in the federal public service, but changes to our members' working conditions must be negotiated with our union in full consultation with the membership.