Federal Public Servants and Remote Work: The Wrong Battle at the Wrong Time  

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The “right” to work remotely is a hugely controversial issue in both the private and public sectors. On the one hand, the trend towards reduced work patterns, such as “flex hours” and the ‘four day week’ phenomenon, was already widely accepted long before the pandemic. And the move to hybrid work was beginning to be considered. On the other hand the pace was slow and steady, with employers in control, making decisions based on their specific requirements, and only after lengthy consultation and successful pilot projects.

Then the arrival of the pandemic proved that some jobs – including important jobs in the federal public service that delivered important programs to Canadians on an emergency basis – could in fact be accomplished remotely.

But it is not at all clear that this arrangement could have been maintained indefinitely. Moreover there were millions of other jobs, both in the pubic service and the private sector, that could only be carried out in person. From grocery store clerks and construction workers to Amazon employees and long haul truckers, the backbone of the economy only survived because of their presence on site, day in and day out. Shockingly little support was provided by some provincial governments, for example in terms of paid sick leave, for many of those ‘in person’ workers in the private sector. Meanwhile federal employees received major financial support. This obvious imbalance inevitably revealed the underlying socio-economic gap between well-paid, highly educated white collar workers and the rest of the workforce, or what noted UBC economist John Helliwell once presciently referred to as “techno-elites” and “techno-serfs.”[i]

Now, in the immediate post pandemic era, many employers in the private sector are demanding that their workers– even white collar workers in the banking, law or technology sectors, to say nothing of Amazon and retail workers generally – return to work in person on a full time or nearly full-time basis. Countless labour lawyers have made clear that it is entirely the employer’s prerogative whether to allow workers to work from home or in the office. This legal reality has also been underlined by experts examining the contract signed by the federal government and its striking employees last year. While the unions portrayed the settlement as a “watershed moment”, experts noted that the separate memorandum on hybrid work provided no guarantees and did not limit the government’s options as employer. Yet despite this, federal public service unions have threatened a “summer of discontent” and vowed to fight tooth and nail the government’s planned return of most employees to office 3 days a week in the fall, rather than the current two days.  

Is it any wonder, then, that the general public’s initial resentment of public sector workers’ benefits during the pandemic has not gone away? In fact, in the post-pandemic era, this unhappiness with the public sector has only grown, egged on by apparent bureaucratic incompetence in crucial service delivery areas such as passports and immigration, and scandals such as ArriveCan. And this debate over remote work in the public sector is now also taking place at a time of perceived economic stress, with unaffordable housing and the high cost of food being top concerns for many Canadians.

What better time, then, for the public sector unions to launch such an all out battle against their employer, the federal government? Yet, unbelievably, that is exactly what they have done.

Needless to say, this uncompromising stance is not going to win federal bureaucrats any friends in the general public, or for that matter among politicians of all political stripes. Both the union’s timing, and the arguments they are using to make their case, demonstrate either a tone deaf isolation from reality or a complete lack of concern for their status in the court of public opinion. Either way it is a classic example of choosing the wrong hill to die on, and at the worst possible time.

Chris Aylward, the president of PSAC, the largest union representing some 185,000 federal public servants, recently made it clear that public opinion is not the union’s concern. “If we relied on broad public support to advance the rights of workers in Canada, we’d never have achieved…many of the other rights we (now) take for granted,” he wrote in an Op Ed in the Globe and Mail. Moreover Aylward makes it clear that the union sees remote work as a right, and the current “battle for remote work” as one being fought for the future of labour unions everywhere. “The push for remote work by civil service unions could set a new benchmark that forces all employers in Canada to adapt and innovate, ensuring that the workforce of tomorrow is happier, more resilient, inclusive and productive.”[ii]     

How exactly the two-day in office model will achieve this, but the three day version cannot, is left unsaid. Nor have the union leadership tried to make their case by preparing, or at least sharing publicly, detailed analyses demonstrating how the primarily work-at-home model can satisfy the stated concerns of the federal government as employer with respect to public service values and ethics, bureaucratic culture, the importance of personal interaction and the need for group discussions and consultation.[iii]

Sadly, the union leadership have also failed to make an alternative and compelling case for delaying workers’ return to the office until a number of significant operational issues, as well as health and safety problems, have been resolved by the employer. Indeed, the union leaderships’ failure to highlight these valid concerns is baffling. Only the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPSC) has referred to some of these issues, and only at the very end of a press release focusing almost entirely on union solidarity and the employees’ right to remote work, aggressively attacking the ‘unacceptable’ demands of the federal government. [iv]

What are some of these legitimate concerns the unions have failed to communicate? To begin with, it is important to note that the federal government divested itself of significant office space during the pandemic. Meanwhile it was already beginning to implement a plan to eliminate actual offices for most employees in favour of a system of dividers and cubicles, a model often used in the private sector as well. However with the dramatic decrease in available floor space, in many departments there are now nowhere near enough cubicles for all staff in a given program or branch. This has resulted in a kafka-esque situation in which:

(1) Individual workers must take to their computers on a Sunday night to attempt to “book” space in a cubicle for the following week on their selected days. They may or may not succeed, and are very unlikely to have the same space for two or more weeks in a row. And, since others are using the same space on other days, there is no possibility of leaving any work material, let alone personal items, in these cubicles.

(2) There is no certainty as to who will be where in a given week. This has actually resulted in employees making their way to the office, only to spend most of the day in virtual Team meetings with their colleagues, including members of the same team, who are actually present in the same building but scattered around on different floors.

(3) Many of the office buildings now in use were unoccupied for more than two years during the pandemic. As a result, several are now infested with various insects and pests, including bats, as well as mould. Clearly health concerns mandate the federal government should immediately address these issues before requiring workers in affected buildings to return to their offices at all.

Needless to say, remedying these and other health and safety concerns should be top priorities for the federal government as employer, and should be highlighted by their employees. Intensive pressure from their union on these issues, rather than on concern over a two vs. three day in person work week, would be far more likely to be effective, and might even result in some sympathy from the general public.     

[i] https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2024/isde-ised/Id53-11-6-1996-eng.pdf

[ii] C. Aylward. “Battle for Remote Work is a Fight for the Future”. Globe and Mail. May 30, 2024.

[iii] See for example an excellent article by Kathryn May including comments by PCO Clerk John Hannaford, “Building a Culture of Public Service Work on Hybrid Work”, Policy Options. May 16, 2024.

[iv] https://pipsc.ca/news-issues/press-releases/press-release-public-sector-unions-stand-united-in-opposition-to-federal