Federal Government Faces Tough Choices in Pushing Workers Back to Office

by EditorK

The Parliament Buildings in Ottawa in a file photo. (Jonathan Ren/The Epoch Times)

Doug Lett
By Doug Lett 

The federal government is stuck “between a rock and a hard place” over the push to get federal public servants back into the office three days a week.

That’s according to Aaron Wudrick, who is the director of domestic policy at the MacDonald Laurier Institute, a public policy think tank in Ottawa.

“I think that the feds are in a real sticky spot right now,” Mr. Wudrick, a lawyer, told The Epoch Times.

“On the one hand, the last thing they need right now is another enemy,” he said, referring to the threat by several public sector unions to mount a “summer of discontent” if Ottawa forces workers back into the office for three days a week, instead of the current two.

“If they do cave into the unions, a lot of Canadians … are going to say, you know, give them another reason to throw the bums out, because they’re going to say these guys are in the pockets of the unions,” said Mr. Wudrick.

The issue came to a head on May 8 when several major unions, including the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), announced a campaign to oppose Ottawa’s plan to have workers report to the office three days a week, starting Sept. 9.

The unions are filing a series of legal challenges against the move and are also encouraging members to file individual grievances. The unions involved represent some 270,000 public servants.

“This misguided decision sets up workers to fail, pushing them into physical offices that don’t have enough workspaces, where they don’t have the right equipment to do their jobs effectively, only to spend their days on virtual calls with their coworkers who work all across the country,” said Chris Aylward, president of PSAC, in a news release.

The unions also say the move violates agreements they had with the federal government that any changes involving “telework” would be negotiated.

For example, in a May 6, 2023, news release, PSAC announced it had an agreement with the federal Treasury Board to negotiate any telework changes.

“Having all remote work requests reviewed on an individual basis will prevent future ‘one size fits all’ type mandates,” it said.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party will push the federal Liberals to comply, although he stopped short of saying his party would withdraw from its supply and confidence agreement that is keeping the Liberals in power until June 2025.

“In this case, the federal government … has said, we will work with the union, we will work with workers to establish the best way forward in terms of where workers are going to be doing their jobs,” Mr. Singh told reporters on May 10. “That agreement should be respected.”

However, the federal government maintains it has the right to change the hybrid work model.

“A hybrid work environment continues to exist,” said Treasury Board Minister Anita Anand. “There is for many people a four-month transition period,” she told reporters on May 8.

“A hybrid work environment is not within the collective agreements,” she added. “It is something that at the time of negotiations, the government of Canada retained prerogative over.”

Mr. Wudrick said both sides seem firmly entrenched.

At the same time, he said there is a perception by many Canadians that federal public servants have it easier than their private sector counterparts.

“Part of that has to do with … a generalized feeling that some civil servants are not doing very much work at home—whether that’s true or not,” he said. “Remember, we had long waits for things like passports. Public services are seen as kind of lacking right now.”

But Mr. Wudrick cautioned there is no guarantee public servants will be more productive working in an office.

What he would like to see are better performance measures.

“I’m more concerned about civil servants doing good work, being seen to be doing good work, and the public having confidence they’re doing work,” he said. “It’s about measuring how they do it, not where they do it.”

The issue may come to a head soon. Some 9,000 members of the Canada Border Services Agency will wrap up a strike vote on May 15, and telework for “non-uniformed members” is one of the key issues.

In a news release on May 10, PSAC said mediation is scheduled to start on June 3 between its CBSA members and the federal government.

The union warns if no agreement is reached, there could be major delays at border crossings over the summer.

Doug Lett is a former news manager with both Global News and CTV, and has held a variety of other positions in the news industry. 

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