Federal public service employees frustrated with ‘vague’ return-to-work plans

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As federal employees gradually return to the office in person, some workers and members of the public service union say they want more clarity and consistency from the Treasury Board of Canada about working arrangements. 

Since early March, federal departments have been gradually returning to on-site or hybrid work after being given the green light by the Treasury Board, which oversees the federal workforce. 

The Treasury Board said in a statement there was “no one-size-fits-all approach,” and deputy ministers each have the authority on how their employees will make that return.

But with decisions in the hands of each department, some public service employees are frustrated with the lack of consistency. 

“We do not see a clear direction in terms of what return-to-work looks like,” said Sharon DeSousa, national executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, a union representing around 200,000 workers across the country.

She said she’s heard from members of the union about a lack of answers and a sense of “instability” surrounds returning to work, particularly with how plans look different from department to department. 

Sharon DeSousa, speaking in front of the Treasury Board of Canada building at a rally, says public service workers are seeing different return-to-work plans from department to department. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

DeSousa said employees deserve to have safe and healthy work environments, adding the mental health of everyone has suffered through the pandemic. Employees need to know the government has their back, she said. 

“They need consistency, they need support, they need to ensure their health and welfare is taken care of, and they need clear communication.”

WATCH | Federal workers still see ‘instability’ around return-to-work plan, union says

Federal workers still see ‘instability’ around return-to-work plan, union says

Sharon DeSousa, national executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says it’s still not clear how a hybrid work model for federal employees will be implemented.

‘Loose, vague directives’

Kristina MacLean, who works for the Department of National Defence, said she’s currently pushing for a hybrid work model, but the lack of strong language outlining teleworking options makes it difficult. 

“We did the work, we’ve shown we can do the work, now it’s time for everyone to be a little flexible.”

MacLean said the lack of consistency across departments is a “major problem.”

“Right now it’s at the employer’s discretion,” she said. “Depending on which department you’re in or what classification you are, you’re getting different treatment and you could all be working in the same office.”

Kristina MacLean, seen here at a rally for workers’ rights, says she’s worried about inconsistent return-to-work plans that are at the employer’s discretion. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

MacLean said she’s found the communication surrounding the return to work has been made up of “loose, vague directives” that are up to interpretation. 

“I think that puts us in dangerous territory because if it’s completely up to the discretion of the employer, how are we going to protect the workers’ rights?”

In its labour force survey for the month of August, Statistics Canada said it continued to see an upward trend of people reporting hybrid working arrangements, with 8.6 per cent of those surveyed working in a hybrid model. 

Statistics Canada said it doesn’t have data on the number of federal public service employees currently working remotely or in a hybrid model. 

Differences across departments

CBC News reached out to various federal departments about their plans on employees returning to the workplace. The Department of Canadian Heritage did not respond to CBC in time for publication.

  • The Canada Revenue Agency said it will be moving toward a hybrid work model, and will gradually increase the number of employees working on-site.
  • Canadian Heritage is moving toward a “hybrid and flexible” approach to the workplace. On Sept. 26, it is expected people will be working on-site at least one day a week.

  • The Department of Finance said it is adopting a hybrid plan where most employees will work a combination of in person and on-site, and is hoping for employees to eventually spend 50 per cent of their time in the office.

  • The Department of Justice said it is now adopting a hybrid work model, and employees wanting to work from home will need to have approved telework agreements by Oct. 3. There is currently no department-wide minimum number of days to work on-site. 
  • The Department of National Defence said it will gradually transition to a hybrid workforce over the coming months. Around 50 per cent of its employees were working on-site during the pandemic, it said.
  • The Department of Public Safety said it will be adopting a hybrid model, with telework agreements defined in collaboration with employee’s managers. It said the process is expected to be finalized by November 2022.
  • Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) said it formally began implementing its flexible work model on Sept. 6, with many of ESDC employees continuing to work on-site.
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada said it has maintained critical services on-site throughout the pandemic, and an increasing number of employees have been coming into work on a regular basis in the last few months. By September, all executives are expected to have regular and sustained on-site presence, and all employees or managers who telework must have a signed telework agreement. 
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada said a significant number of its employees continued working on-site throughout the pandemic, and over the summer employees were returning to offices across the country. Hybrid work arrangements have been adopted, and the department said it anticipates employees will be in the office one to two days a week. 
  • Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada said the health and safety of its employees is a top priority as they transition to a hybrid workforce. 
  • Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it is continuing to transition to a hybrid workplace model.
  • Indigenous Services Canada said it’s planning for a return to work sites this fall, and an in-person presence will be expected one day per week or more. Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said it’s continuing to work on a gradual return to the workplace for the fall as more employees return to work. 
  • Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada said it is carrying out a return-to-the-office plan with the majority of its employees adopting a hybrid plan, working on-site two to three days a week on average. Some employees will have more or less in-office days depending on their job function. 
  • Public Services and Procurement Canada said it is progressively transitioning to a hybrid workplace. 
  • Transport Canada said each employee has an individual work arrangement with their manager, and employees have an option of returning to work full-time or a hybrid plan depending on their job requirements. The work arrangement agreements must be implemented by September, and a number of employees have already been working on-site throughout the pandemic.

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