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Treasury Board president calls return-to-office plan ‘right of employer’

Public service unions have argued that the location where government employees perform their jobs should be a matter for negotiation after almost three years of pandemic-enforced telework, but Fortier flatly rejected that idea.

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Treasury Board president Mona Fortier says the federal government’s return-to-office mandate is not an issue to be decided at the collective bargaining table with public service unions.

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Public service unions have argued that the location where government employees perform their jobs should be a matter for negotiation after almost three years of pandemic-enforced telework, but Fortier flatly rejected that idea.

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“It’s the right of the employer, it’s the management’s right,” Fortier insisted in an interview Tuesday.

The issue could serve as a flashpoint between powerful public service unions and the federal government early in the new year.

In mid-December, Fortier announced government workers will be required to return to the office two or three days a week by the end of March.

The move is designed, she said, to bring fairness and equity to the federal workplace since some departments already have employees in the office regularly, while others do not. Some departments have also left it to individual managers to decide when employees can work from home.

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“We wanted to make sure we had more consistency across departments,” Fortier explained Tuesday.

The hybrid work model, which will bring all workers into the office 40 to 60 per cent of the time, encourages collaboration between teams, cohesion within teams, and ensures a working environment where everyone can participate, she said.

Fortier noted that Ontario government civil servants have been back in the workplace three days a week since April, and Quebec civil servants have been spending two days a week in the office for most of the year.

The federal government, she said, is using a two-month transition period as part of its return-to-the-workplace policy in order to give employees and management time to adjust.

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The policy is set to begin Jan. 16, but will not take full effect until the end of March.

Chief human resources officer Christine Donoghue has developed a directive to help government managers implement the policy.

Asked what will happen if public servants refuse to return to the office based on health and safety concerns — as some unions have suggested — Fortier said management will decide next steps. “If there is disciplinary action to be taken, it will be a situation where it will be assessed case by case,” she said.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) has demanded a halt to the government’s return-to-office plan with the country facing the “triple threat” of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

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“For over two years, we’ve been saying that any return-to-office plan must have purpose, and prioritize employee productivity as well their health and safety,” PIPSC President Jennifer Carr said earlier this month. “This plan has none of that: it’s poorly thought out, punitive and makes no sense whatsoever — and we’re not going to compromise on health and safety.”

Carr has said the government’s unilateral action has set the stage for what she called “an unnecessary fight.”

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the country’s largest public service union, has filed a complaint about the government’s return to workplace plan with the federal labour relations board. It contends the government cannot make unilateral changes to working conditions during contract negotiations.

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The union said it’s also developing guidelines to support public servants who want to file grievances against the federal government once the return-to-office policy comes into effect Jan. 16.

A PSAC survey shows 80 per cent of its members oppose the government’s hybrid work plan.

A workforce survey of almost 14,000 public servants, conducted by Ottawa-based Agile Work Evolutions Inc., found a sizeable majority of them now prefer working from home. In the recent survey, 73 per cent of public servants said they would rather work from home, up from 23 per cent in March 2020. Those favouring a full return to office work has plummeted to six per cent. In March 2020, that number was 43 per cent.

Fortier said the federal government has learned that remote work offers some advantages and opportunities, and will continue to experiment with new models of service delivery.

“Yes, hybrid work is here to stay,” Fortier said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all across the board, but there needs to be consistency.”

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