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Forcing public servants back to downtown Ottawa harms satellite communities: North Grenville mayor


The mayor of North Grenville, just south of Ottawa, says hybrid work has been a boon to her community, and a recent move by the federal government to force public servants back to downtown Ottawa office buildings is misguided.

Nancy Peckford told Newstalk 580 CFRA she was disappointed with the directive this week requiring federal workers to be in the office at least three days per week starting this fall.

"I haven't seen a productivity argument from the Treasury Board in regards to this decision," Peckford told CFRA's Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, federal public service workers by the thousands quickly transitioned to remote working arrangements, hastily setting up makeshift home offices, and doing all of their work virtually. When it became apparent that the pandemic wasn't going away anytime soon, and as governments imposed stay-at-home directives, the remote model took shape.

The move to remote work had a devastating impact on Ottawa's downtown core. Suddenly, the city's many government employees weren't frequenting the businesses that popped up to serve them and they weren't taking public transit anymore. Ottawa had just launched a new LRT system that serves the city's downtown core a few months before the pandemic struck, and while it was already experiencing numerous complications, the pandemic cratered one of the largest cohorts of users. Ridership on OC Transpo has yet to recover.

But Peckford said Ottawa's loss was North Grenville's gain.

"During the pandemic, we had lots of individuals and families moving into our community because they knew they had some flexibility, particularly public servants but also members of the private sector," she said. "I have thousands of federal public servants who live in my community just south of Ottawa and there are thousands more living in other communities surrounding the city of Ottawa. The feedback I'm getting is that this decision is not based on the quality of work from public servants who currently have hybrid work arrangements, but is really a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to this perception that you need to be in the office to do good work, and I personally reject that."

Josh Curley, owner of Ottawa Valley Coffee, says he built his business up as being a place where people can get out of the house and still get some work done, and having those workers drive back to Ottawa would mean fewer days at the coffee shop.

"I would say, of the people that sit and work for extended periods of time throughout the day, I would say more than 50 per cent of them are government workers," Curley said. "We're just hoping that a lot of these people don't forget about us, and don't forget about the small businesses that were there when you needed it."

Municipal leaders in Ottawa, including former mayor Jim Watson, had perviously called on the federal government to get workers back downtown more often in order to bolster the local economy and help fund the transit system. Ontario Premier Doug Ford did the same during a recent visit to Ottawa and just days ago suggested a three-day office mandate would benefit downtown. The current hybrid work policy that requires federal public servants to work in the office two or three days a week, or 40 to 60 per cent of their regular schedule, was first implemented a year ago. 

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe has said hybrid work has had a disproportionate impact on Ottawa's downtown core compared to other large cities, and he believes the city and the federal government need to work on solutions to make sure that Ottawa has economic prosperity in the downtown core, whatever the federal government decides.

Christina Santini, the national affairs director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says the pandemic changed how many people spend their money.

A lot more people are shopping online and that's what's hurting small businesses, whether they're operating downtown or in Kanata, Orléans, et cetera," she said. "For every dollar spent at a small business, 66 cents stays local. For every dollar spent at a multinational such as Walmart, for example, only 11 cents stays local. Look where you spend that dollar, whether it be downtown or in the suburbs. Spend it at your small business."

Peckford said she's hearing from federal workers that being forced back into the office will be more disruptive to the new lives many of them made for themselves when they moved out of the city.

"I really question the value of taking public servants — who have adapted exceedingly well to a hybrid work model — putting them on the road, having them navigate major congestion, and getting them to a downtown office building where I would argue they are likely less productive, not more productive," she said. "What I'm being told is in many cases there isn't enough office space. In fact, most of the meetings, when you go into those downtown offices, are held virtually. They're not held in person, so people drive an hour and a half a day to sit in a downtown office building to conduct most of what they do for the public service virtually."

Peckford said the people who moved to North Grenville and stayed have contributed to the local community in many ways.

"It led to a very significant housing boom, where lots of people moved in during the pandemic and some people chose to stay during the pandemic because they could see light at the end of the tunnel in terms of workplace flexibility," she said. "By virtue of being here more during the week and not being on the road in very, very long commutes, they've spent more time buying their groceries here, buying their gas, visiting local boutiques, getting their hair cut, signing their kids up for sports, volunteering at our food bank, volunteering at the rink. We saw a fairly significant shift in people being able to spend more of their time and more of their money in North Grenville, so it was a net benefit to us."

Union leaders have blasted the move to have workers back in the office, with the Public Service Alliance of Canada promising "legal recourse." The Treasury Board says the contract negotiations with federal unions in the spring of 2023 saw the employer sign letters of agreement on telework that "sit outside of collective agreements."

Peckford said she will continue to tell the Treasury Board to get with the times.

"If federal public service employees are not more productive by being in downtown buildings, why are we insisting that this is the way of the world in the 21st century?" she said. "I'm appealing to the Treasury Board to say I think it's flexibility that matters and anytime you impose three days, four days, whatever it's going to be, you lose that flexibility and you lose the ability to attract top talent to the federal public service, which is what we need right now."

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Josh Pringle and Dylan Dyson


This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Mayor Mark Sutcliffe's comments regarding the federal government's return-to-office plans. Top Stories

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