CAPE/PIPSC open letter: Government's return-to-office policy puts public service at risk

This open letter to the government from the presidents of CAPE and PIPSC was originally published in The Ottawa Citizen. For more on return-to-office see our Issues page.

Any return-to-office policy must “consider the nature of each department’s work and the services they provide to Canadians.” Those are Treasury Board President Mona Fortier’s own words, and we urge her to heed them. Not only at a time when the triple threat of influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus filling up emergency rooms across the country, but when – thanks to this policy and seven years of unacceptable Phoenix pay problems – employee morale is at an all-time low.

As the representatives of two of the largest unions representing over 90,000 federal public sector employees, we are calling on the federal government to halt its blanket return-to-office directive and to keep its promise: develop a hybrid-by-design plan that considers 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. The mandate is not driven by operational needs but by political motivations that disregard employees’ best interests. We expect the implementation of this policy will be fraught with problems. 

First, it will cause a logistical nightmare for department administrators that aren’t ready to receive employees back in the office, and for managers who will be dealing with an avalanche of health and safety complaints and accommodation requests as a result of a hasty, ill-planned return.  

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

This will inevitably impact the quality of federal services Canadians rely on.

Since moving to telework at the beginning of the pandemic, many federal employees worked their hardest to adapt and to adjust to their new work environment, all while managing to keep work collaborations and productivity level at their highest.

Tens of thousands of employees worked overtime for months on end from the confines of their homes to rise to the challenge, deliver new services at record speed, and help Canadians struggling with the catastrophic consequences of the pandemic.

In addition, we see no sense in sending employees to the office when many of these offices have been closed, downsized, or are undergoing renovations. Many departments and agencies have already retro-fitted offices to reduce capacity and carbon footprints. Where will these employees fit? 

Some government offices are still dealing with pre-pandemic issues, such as bats, bed bugs, asbestos and more. Some employees are reporting being forced back into the office only to have to work from the floor, lunchrooms or workstations that are ill-equipped.

There is no clear indication of how various accommodations, let alone health and safety concerns, will be addressed. What is clear is that there is no justification for sending employees back to these conditions when better options are readily available.

Finally, a more flexible approach to telework and hybrid work would offer the government a rare chance to achieve other goals – including the reduction of GHG emissions, the conversion of office buildings into much-needed affordable housing, flexibility for workers dealing with care duties at home, economic growth in remote areas by expanding the public service outside the national capital region, recruitment and retention of top, and significantly reducing operational expenses.

The plan doesn’t make sense from a logistical point of view, from a health and safety point of view, from a productivity lens, and it also undermines the government’s own goals. Instead, the government has an opportunity to model a more modern and equitable workplace – one that ensures Canada’s public sector becomes the employer of choice.

We urge the federal government to reconsider its position and engage in a constructive dialogue with employees and their unions, to devise a better, safer and sensible return-to-office plan.