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Federal employees start returning to the office


Federal public servants will begin returning to office buildings in Ottawa and Gatineau today, as the federal government begins phasing in a return-to-office plan.

Starting today, federal employees in the core public service who are working from home will be required to begin the transition back to in-person work, with a requirement of being in the office at least two to three days a week.

Many public servants began working from home full-time when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Last year, government departments began making their own decisions about remote and hybrid work.

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier announced the return-to-office plan in mid-December, but federal unions say there is not enough workspaces available for federal employees to return to the office.

"In my opinion, the workplace is not ready for that," Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada president Jennifer Carr told CTV National News on Sunday. "I don't believe that the Treasury Board took into consideration the logistics that are required for returning to the workplace."

Carr says the federal government has done a lot of downsizing in the National Capital Region, and "lost a lot of buildings" for federal workers. Carr says some employees returning to Statistics Canada did not have office spaces, and PIPSC has received reports of employees working in cafeterias and lunchrooms.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees released an open letter on Friday, calling on the government to halt the return-to-office plans. The unions say the plan puts members' health and safety at risk and "doesn't make sense" from a logistical and productivity point of view.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada announced in December that it would file a complaint with the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board over the government's return-to-office plan. Carr tells CTV News PIPSC launched a "freeze complaint" with the labour board on Friday over the return-to-office plan.

Federal departments have until the end of March to fully implement the return-to-office plan.  Fortier told the Canadian Press last week that any repercussions for public workers who won't go back to the office would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Some public servants decry lack of direction

Ottawa public servant YuTaek Hwang has been working remotely for nearly three years.

But despite the back-to-office mandate for federal workers taking effect this week Hwang said his department has not offered any information about when he should return.

"We did get a corporate email saying they want people to be back in two to three times a week, but nothing as of recent," he said.

Hwang is not the only public servant raising concerns about a lack of direction about the return, even as others worry about what the state of office infrastructure will be.

Fortier told The Canadian Press in an interview that the purpose of the hybrid work model is to increase collaboration between colleagues. But an internal document suggests there could be hiccups as employees collaborate with their colleagues both in person and virtually.

An October briefing document for Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi, which the government proactively disclosed online, said some workplaces may not be equipped with adequate bandwidth to support videoconferencing.

"As employees return to worksites, the level of service they have come to expect is not necessarily available in all government of Canada buildings," said the document, which outlined how the minister could respond to questions about the return-to-work plan in the House of Commons.

Hwang, who lives in Kanata, said he would prefer to be fully remote, noting that others whose work requires in-person collaboration have already been going to the office.

"The nature of my work doesn't require me to see or do anything in person. So I don't really see any merit to spending a little over two hours a day commuting," Hwang said.

The return to work comes at a fraught time for public transit in the national capital region, where the federal government has a majority of its offices.

An ice storm that hit Ottawa on Jan. 4 caused the city's light rail transit system to partially shut down for six days.

Some on social media expressed their frustration with the situation and pointed to the LRT issues as a reason why the return-to-office policy would be a burden on people with long commutes.

Marty Carr, an Ottawa city councillor, has long been an advocate for better transit and said she wants public servants to have access to a good system.

But she said she knows workers are dealing with questions of time and cost, including whether it's worth it to buy a monthly transit pass when they will only need to be in the office two or three days a week.

"I'm really concerned that more and more federal public servants are going to make that decision to drive and not use our transit system," said Carr.

Still, Pat Scrimgeour, the director of transit customer systems and planning at the city, said the system is well-prepared and has enough capacity to welcome public servants back.

"We've been ready and waiting for them to come back for coming up on three years now," said Scrimgeour.

Businesses welcoming employees back

Businesses in downtown Ottawa say they will be welcoming returning public employees with open arms this week.

"We are pleased to see more traffic on the streets, foot traffic that is. It's nice to see people discovering our store," Perfect Books owner Jim Sherman said on Sunday.

"Always great to see a more bustling community here in the downtown core."

At Bel Fiore Flowers, Minoo Banaei says it is good if workers choose to come back to the office.

"It's very quiet right now and we need our life back to normal."

As federal employees return to the office, Carr insists the union is not against returning to the office, but questions the implementation and timing of the policy.

"We're not against returning to the office, we do believe there are reasons but it needs to be presence with purpose," Carr said Sunday.

"People need to be able to gather and have teamwork, but you can't do that if you work with remote workers. So to come into an office space to sit on MS Teams every day, to do exactly the work you do the same at home just is demoralizing for a worker."

With files from The Canadian Press and Judy Trinh, CTV News Top Stories

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